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Published: Friday, 10/22/2004

Last-minute changes throw hanging chad over Michigan

LANSING, Mich. - This was supposed to be a good news column about voting in Michigan, and there is indeed something to be proud and happy about. The state has been widely praised for having perhaps the cleanest, best, and most reliable election system in the nation.

Now a last-minute lawsuit and a court ruling have thrown what amounts to an enormous hanging chad into the process. Suddenly, on the brink of what is expected to be an extremely close national election, a federal judge has ruled that, in Michigan, you can show up at the wrong polling place - but if you are in the right city or township, the authorities still have to count your votes for President and Congress.

Your address and registration need to be verified first, of course, and what all that may mean is we'll need to wait six days before we know who won the state. Chris Thomas, Michigan bureau of elections director since 1981, is an understated, nonpartisan political scientist with a law degree.

And he is simply horrified. "Concerns about voter security and possible fraud are going to be much higher, unless we get a speedy court ruling to resolve all of this," he said late last week.

What happened is this: Michigan Democrats and the NAACP last month sued Mr. Thomas and his boss, Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, after Mr. Thomas told the state's local election clerks that Michigan didn't have any law allowing them to count any "provisional" ballots.

"That's not because we don't want them to vote," said Kelly Chesney, the main spokesman for the secretary of state. "We want their votes for all offices to count, and we want to make every effort to send them to the right precinct."

But Democrats, who want the highest possible turnout, argued that not counting provisional ballots would violate federal law and take the right to vote away from thousands who wander into the wrong polling place.

And to state election officials' surprise, U.S. District Judge David Lawson agreed with them. Tuesday, he ordered the state to collect and count such votes, though only for federal offices and only if the voter turns out to actually live in the same city, village, or township. "The public interest is served when citizens can look with confidence at an elections process that ensures that all votes cast by qualified voters are counted," he said.

Immediately, the state filed an emergency motion with the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, saying, frankly, that messing with the system at the last minute would create a mess that would "harm the fundamental rights of individuals to vote and participate in an orderly and fair election."

What finally will happen is unclear, but what is clear is that Michigan is no Florida, but instead has in place a rational system that is easy to use and easy to understand. That's partly because Michigan had its Florida experience long ago.

It was 1952, in a cliff-hanger of a race for governor between the incumbent, G. Mennen "Soapy" Williams, and GOP challenger Harry Kelly. Unofficial returns indicated Mr. Kelly had won, but the final numbers said Mr. Williams - and the result was recount after recount. Soapy Williams won in the end, "and Michigan started reforming their election laws as a result," Mr. Thomas said. Back then, the dogfight was over "incomplete Xs" made on paper ballots, rather than hanging chads.

State lawmakers decided the standard should be whether the voter's ballot accords with the rules rather than one in which officials tried to decipher what the "voter intent" might have been. That has worked so well that other states often come to study Michigan's model.

The only major problem Michigan has had since was in 1970, when Detroit tried a punch-card system that was not ready for prime time and the state waited three days to learn who was governor.

Now, something potentially worse is at hand. "There is not enough time to put controls in place against potential fraud there is not enough time to train officials on how to process and tabulate the partial ballots," the secretary of state's emergency appeal fairly moaned.

How the courts will finally decide is anyone's guess. But it is hard to see why learning where you are supposed to vote is an undue hardship, or why we would want to encourage such ill-informed voters to cast impulsive votes for President and ignore the rest of the ticket.

But this much is clear: If the nation has to wait days to know who the next president is while thousands of "provisional" votes in Ohio and Michigan are examined, nobody will make "Flori-duh!" jokes ever again.



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