Voting challenges in battleground states could create drama, headaches

Sandy's impact on Election Day
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Story highlights

  • Provisional balloting, absentee balloting, and voting technology watched closely
  • Impact of Hurricane Sandy on polling places, electronic balloting also a concern
  • Discrepancies like address or name changes could complicate process in close election
Theodore Olson says he is not going anywhere after Election Day.
"I've been clearing my calendar just in case I need to be ready for the next five weeks," the Washington "super lawyer" and Romney adviser joked with CNN recently. "I don't know, no one knows, you read these polls and it could come out any of a zillion different ways."
Olson was the appellate attorney who successfully argued before the Supreme Court in the 2000 Florida ballot recount case, which handed the presidency to George W. Bush.
That five-week national drama remains fresh in the minds of political and legal experts, anticipating a possible repeat-- an election crisis in one or more battleground states on pre- and post-election issues.
"Between provisional balloting, absentee balloting, and voting technology, I think there are untold different ways that this is a tense, contested election," said Rebecca Green, co-director of the Election Law Program at William & Mary Law School. "It's pretty certain there's going to be some litigation when this is over on November 6th."
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Magic electoral vote number to win: 270
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The voting wars are already being contested on broad canvas -- legislative initiatives, grassroots anti-suppression monitoring, social media campaigns, and months long court litigation.
Here are some potential voting issues and scenarios, based on reporting and research across CNN's various political platforms:
Voter identification and provisional ballots
The greatest source of contention and concern involves laws requiring some form of government-issued picture identification to register to vote and to cast ballots.
Eleven states have new laws in place, designed say supporters to stop fraud, purge voter rolls of outdated information, and restore confidence in the electoral process.
But critics-- led by a coalition of civil rights and other organizations say voter identification is an effort by some politicians -- through the legislature -- to disenfranchise certain voting groups, especially minorities.
How pervasive is any voter fraud? A recent investigation by CNN Justice Correspondent Joe Johns found 55 cases of voter fraud referred for prosecution by the Florida Secretary of State out of 11.6 million registered voters over five years, the latest period for which data is available.
"It's true that there is some voter fraud in this country," Richard Hasen a political science and law professor at the University of California-Irvine told CNN. "But there is no credible evidence that there is any systematic in-person voter fraud. It's not a serious problem."
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a legal liberal think tank at the New York University School of Law that has criticized the increase in what it sees as prohibitive voting laws, there have been 25 laws and two executive actions passed in 19 states since the beginning of 2011 which "could make it harder to vote."
But federal courts in recent weeks have, for the most part, limited the reach of these laws: blocking Texas' tough requirements; delaying implementation of Pennsylvania's laws until after November; and eliminating some voter registration requirements in Florida.
Ohio, which analysts say could be the key battleground state, has had many of its Republican-led legislative efforts thwarted. Federal and state courts have expanded early voting to everyone in the crucial last days before Tuesday.
And courts have ordered the state to preserve the provisional votes of those who may have cast in error because of poll worker misinformation -- such as sending someone to the wrong polling place and precinct to cast the ballot.
The state has among the highest provisional ballot rates in the United States - an estimated 200,000 or more were cast in Ohio four years ago. About 40,000 were later declared ineligible. That could delay a final count in the presidential race for days.
Early voting and poll closings
Hurricane Sandy has forced last-minute scrambling among voting officials across the East Coast, where early voting had begun in earnest in several key states.
One concern may be whether flooding will cause logistical headaches: a shortage of working voting equipment, or even the disappearance or destruction of thousands of absentee ballots being stored. Some voters may have lost the necessary ID to vote, or have trouble making it to the polls, especially in rural isolated areas.
The Pennsylvania Office of the Secretary of State has advised polling stations to keep paper ballots available at the polls for 20- to 25-percent of expected voters in order to alternate with electronic voting machines.
In Virginia, early in-person absentee voting has been delayed.
"Of course on Monday we had no voting at all. And Tuesday we didn't get started until 10 in the morning," said Tom Parkins, Voter Registrar in Alexandria. "So we lagged behind the 2008 turnout at this point. But, we're reasonably sure that's going to be made up late this week and this weekend."
Misinformation campaigns
Misinformation of another kind: deliberate efforts to mislead, confuse, or pressure voters. American elections big and small have had such problems before -- but there is no sign it is any more pervasive this election year, based on CNN's interviews with state election officials.
The rise of social media has, in fact, created a misinformation campaign of its own, difficult to sort out fact from rumor, where even a whiff of wrongdoing can feed a wildfire of misplaced outrage and mistrust.
In Florida, another battleground, U.S. Postal Inspectors told CNN they have opened a preliminary investigation into a slew of bogus letters questioning the citizenship and registration of certain voters just two weeks before the election.
Other Floridians -- many Republicans -- have said they had received calls from people claiming to represent the state, urging them to vote by phone-- something that is not allowed anywhere.
Some Virginians have received similar complaints.
The liberal ThinkProgress.org group has alleged Mitt Romney's campaign has been training poll watchers in Wisconsin with what it calls "highly misleading-- and sometimes downright false-- information" about voter rights. The campaign denies any such training.
And Wisconsin and Ohio have seen a deluge of billboards popping up with the message "Voter fraud is a felony." That is true, but some see them as clear intimidation, and prompted protests.
"It's the way they are being displayed and the fact that they are in almost exclusively areas or around areas that are predominantly African-American or Latino," said Wisconsin voting rights activist Eric Marshall. "It sends a message to those communities that there's a problem with your voting."
Court challenges
The Secretaries of State typically control elections, and staff members in key battlegrounds contacted by CNN say they are ready to handle any complaints or concerns.
Legal sources with the Obama and Romney campaigns told CNN they were closely watching potential problems, but would not offer specifics on the ground forces the campaigns have deployed, or any specific areas of concern.
Many official complaints-