Published October 25, 2004
DETROIT – With a little more than a week to go before Election Day, voters in Michigan who hoped to rely on provisional ballots (search) were left in limbo by a court ruling.
A federal appeals court panel on Sunday put on hold a judge's order requiring some provisional ballots to be counted even if they are cast in the wrong precinct. It was the federal panel's second ruling in two days against Democrats seeking to ease voting restrictions.
Provisional ballots — required in all states for the first time this year — are used when voters say they are properly registered but their names are not on the registration rolls. The ballots are later counted if elections officials determine the voter is validly registered.
Michigan officials had ordered that only provisional ballots cast in the correct precinct should be counted, but a federal judge in Michigan had issued an injunction Tuesday saying ballots should be counted for federal races, including president, if the votes were cast in the wrong precinct but the right city, township or village.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (search) panel in Cincinnati stayed that ruling, though promised to hear an expedited appeal of the case. It was unclear whether a decision would be reached before Election Day. On Saturday, the same three-judge panel had rejected a similar ruling from Ohio.
"It's by no means over, but the likelihood that the stay will be in effect on Election Day is greater than the chance it won't be," said Michael Pitt, a lawyer who sued the Michigan secretary of state's office over its provisional ballots policy on behalf Michigan Democrats.
Pitt said he expected written arguments to be due Monday afternoon.
Kelly Chesney, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State's Office, said Sunday's appeals court decision "in essence allows us to go forward with policies and procedures that we had in place before. So we are going to go forward with our elections process as previously planned. I think it's good news for the local clerks."
Michigan elections officials have said voters who show up in the wrong polling places will be directed to the correct one.
Rules on counting provisional ballots vary by state, but Democrats have sued in several swing states where elections officials ruled that such ballots cast outside the voter's precinct are invalid.
Judges had ruled in favor of Democrats in Ohio and Michigan, but the 6th Circuit effectively nullified those rulings this weekend. On Saturday, the court threw out a lower-court decision that said provisional ballots are valid as long as they are cast in the correct county.
In Florida, a federal judge ruled Thursday that the state must reject provisional ballots if they are cast in the wrong precinct. In Missouri and Colorado, judges have ruled that votes in the wrong place don't have to be counted.
Democrats claim the stricter rules disproportionately hurt poor people, who tend to move more often and may not know their correct polling place. They also contend such rules violate the Help America Vote Act, although the U.S. Justice Department has weighed in on the side of election officials.