Courting Political Advantage

This election, it may be a long time before the fat lady sings. A quick scan of this morning’s headlines reveals the voting cycle ripe for litigation and judicial intervention.

Jo Becker of the Washington Post reports today that the legal battles have already begun:

With less than two weeks to go before Election Day, an unprecedented number of lawsuits challenging basic election rules are pending in many of the battleground states. Both sides are in the final stages of training thousands of lawyers who will descend on the polls on Nov. 2 to watch for voter fraud or intimidation.

Citing a report released yesterday by the Election Reform Information Project, the Miami Herald’s Frank Davies writes (registration required) that “the nation could experience another Florida-style meltdown because of confusion over rules, disputes over new voting systems, a lack of poll workers and the potential for court battles in a close contest.”

In Denver, about 13,000 requested absentee ballots were never sent, writes the Denver Post. Allegations of deficiencies in Iowa’s election laws have been raised in that state, according to the Des Moines Register. And in the crucial swing state of Ohio, Republicans have demanded closer scrutiny of new voter registrations after submissions collected by the NAACP included the names “Mary Poppins” and “Dick Tracy,” reports the New York Post.

While the media is jumping on stories about disenfranchised voters, partisan tinkering with ballots, and teams of lawyers on standby to defend the Constitution, reporters shouldn’t forget that maybe — just maybe — they’re also being spun.

As the Washington Post’s Becker writes, “the legal efforts have provided both sides with political fodder”:

Democrats point to a history of Republican “ballot integrity” initiatives and charge that the GOP is trying to intimidate black voters, who overwhelmingly support Kerry over Bush.

Republicans counter that the Democrats are cynically using the issue of minority-vote suppression to motivate their political base, pointing to a party handbook that advises lawyers to mount “preemptive strikes” to raise awareness about past voter intimidation efforts even in places where none currently exists.

November 2 may come and go with no winner. (Heck, we may be taking down the holiday decorations and still have no outcome.) While the election process may be complex, the media’s job is simple: to report on legitimate balloting snafus, without letting the partisan jockeying muddy the real issues at stake.

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.