Washington Matters


Election Disputes Sure to Tie Up Results

Richard Sammon

Don't expect to know all the results on election night.



Dozens of supertight races going down to the wire mean one sure thing: loads of election lawyers working 24/7 all next week and probably beyond. And there are certain to be some races that aren’t decided for days, weeks or months after the polling ends.

Republicans seem safe bets to win the House but the size of their margin will await scores of election challenges, automatic recounts, contested ballots, fraud charges, legal hearings, certification hurdles, busted voting machines and voter protests in places where a race may come down to a tiny difference between winner and loser -- all of it delaying the final tally of the House and Senate.

It’s likely to be even worse than last time around, when Minnesotans waited through seven months of recounting and legal wrangling before Democrat Al Franken was certified the winner of the Senate election over Norm Coleman by 312 votes out of nearly 3 million cast.

Expect the drama to escalate if majority power is in question in the House, or more likely, the Senate, where the GOP is poised to pick up most of the 10 seats they need for control.

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The demands for recounts and the legal challenges are not just sour grapes. Far too much energy and resources -- and national party attention -- have been put into supertight races for a very narrow loser to throw the towel in early.

Adding to the likely post-Election Day chaos, every state has its own set of rules for how votes are cast, counted and how challenges are conducted. Many candidates in tight races have had election lawyers preparing for battle for weeks already, and the national parties will help further, flying in top lawyers wherever needed.

One state that is sure to be late with results is Washington, where incumbent Democratic Sen. Patty Murray is in a tight battle with former Republican state Sen. Dino Rossi. Washington requires all votes be cast by mail, and any ballot postmarked on or before Election Day is eligible. A million or more votes, possibly 30% of the total, may not be received until late next week. And that will be prior to a possible recount.

In Alaska, the write-in campaign of incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R, against challengers Joe Miller, R, who defeated her in the primary, and Scott McAdams, D, could take much time to sort out. Voting machines are unable to read names written by hand on a ballot. If this election is particularly close, every single ballot with any name written on it for senator will need to be personally inspected and verified. If very close, it could be Alaska’s version of Florida’s dimpled chad debacle in the 2000 presidential election.

Dozens of House races, too, could end up in overtime, with candidates, campaign staffs and lawyers huddling and demanding recounts and filing legal challenges. More than 40 House races are true toss-ups, the large majority of them for Democratic-held seats. They are in every region of the country and include North Dakota’s at-large representative, Earl Pomeroy, D, a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee, and Missouri Rep. Ike Skelton, D, chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

Early Voting Factors. A measure of voter motivation this year, despite the likelihood of contested results and unwelcome delays when all the counting is done, is the rising level of early voting.

Thirty-two states allow early in-person voting and nonpartisan election experts suggest that probably 4 million to 5 million voters nationally have already cast their votes, either in person at special early voting polling places or by mail. When the election is over, probably one in four voters will have cast an early ballot. In the last midterm in 2006, 18.5% of voters voted early. In the 2008 presidential election, which understandably draws larger national interest and is accompanied by larger and more organized get-out-the-vote drives, 30% of voters acted early.

According to the most recent statistics from the United States Elections Project, a nonpartisan election data analysis effort at George Mason University, Republicans are registering notable gains in early voting this year, compared to the last two election cycles, in states with hot congressional and gubernatorial races -- particularly California, Florida, Colorado, Nevada, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Maine. While Democrats and independents in these states also have impressive early voting numbers this year, the notable rise is among Republicans. In several states, Republicans have raised their early voting percentage by nearly 20% over 2008.

It’s one more sign Republicans are particularly energized this year, determined to make a difference and sensing victories on their side in many places next week, no matter if some races take a while to ultimately decide.



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