LANSING, Mich. – A federal judge ignored a Justice Department argument Tuesday and ruled that Michigan must count provisional ballots cast by voters who show up at the wrong polling precincts but are in the right city, township or village.
U.S. District Judge David Lawson issued an injunction barring Republican Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land from ordering election officials not to count provisional ballots unless voters are shown to have voted in the right precinct.
Provisional, or backup, ballots are used when voters say they are properly registered but their names do not appear on the voter registration rolls.
Lawson agreed with Michigan Democrats, the NAACP and voter-rights groups who filed suit against Land. They said it should be enough that voters cast ballots in the jurisdiction — city, township or village — where they live, regardless of whether they show up in the correct precinct.
His ruling echoed one last week by a federal judge in Ohio.
The Justice Department had argued in a friend-of-the-court brief Monday that the 2002 Help America Vote Act does not give individuals the right to sue if they believe their state has violated the law. Rather, they should go through a state administrative complaint process or rely on a U.S. attorney to file suit, the federal government said.
"American elections have long been precinct-based," Justice Department attorneys wrote in court papers. "A well-understood premise of such a system is that a voter must appear at the correct polling place — the one to which the voter was assigned, and on whose rolls the voter appears — or else the voter will not be able to vote."
Mark Brewer, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, had said the department's "11th-hour request reeks of partisan mischief and is an abuse of our justice system."
Elsewhere, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Monday that people who cast provisional ballots at the wrong precinct are not entitled to have their votes counted, rejecting an argument that the rule wrongly disenfranchises voters. The court said the law clearly states provisional ballots must be counted only if the voter is later shown to be entitled to vote at the precinct.
However, a federal judge in Ohio last week blocked a directive requiring poll workers to send voters to their correct precinct, ruling that Ohio voters can cast provisional ballots as long as they are in the county where they are registered. Ohio's secretary of state is appealing.