WASHINGTON – Florida again. And Ohio and Iowa and New Mexico and maybe Wisconsin or one or two other battleground states. All are possible settings for a replay of the court contests and recounts that marked the 2000 election (search).
The neck-and-neck presidential election could end, as it almost always has through American history, with a clear winner and a gracious loser on Election Night. But armies of lawyers are ready for the alternative with an eye to fighting several Florida-style postelection legal wars at once.
Lawyers set up command posts in key states weeks ago, and they have already filed dozens of lawsuits intended to clarify or change election rules before voters come to the polls.
Here are some states where the close election and other factors could combine to produce this year's versions of the 36-day Florida recount battle:
Florida has a closely divided electorate and a fat pot of 27 Electoral College (search) votes. Both President Bush (search) and the Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry (search), could win the election by winning Florida. That fact, plus a history of mechanical and procedural problems, puts the state under special scrutiny this year.
Despite an overhaul of state voting procedures and eviction of the old punch card voting machines that produced the chads of 2000, Florida still has many of the old problems and some new ones.
Legal challenges could again involve faulty equipment, but complaints over registration rules, poll hours or provisional voting are more likely.
Politicians have been trading accusations over claims of fraud, missing absentee ballots and concerns that thousands of voter registrations will be challenged in what one lawyer calls "hand-to-hand combat at the precincts" on Nov. 2.
Thousands of absentee ballots may have gone astray in heavily Democratic Broward County, and election officials had to scramble to send new ones. Republicans claimed Thursday that 925 convicted felons without voting rights had either voted or requested absentee ballots.
Unlike in 2000, Florida now has a statewide recount law. Recounts are automatic if the result is within 0.5 percent of total votes cast.
Scene of much of the legal skirmishing before the election, Ohio has some of the same dynamics as Florida. It's a big state, the polls show a very close race and 20 Electoral College votes are on the table.
No Republican has ever been elected president without taking Ohio; only two Democrats have in 100 years.
At least one of the controversies could form the basis for a new legal challenge after the election. Republicans questioned thousands of voter registrations, since mail sent to the listed addresses was returned. The GOP lost a federal appeal Friday to restart hearings challenging the registrations. Attorney General Jim Petro said stopping the hearings "has just thrown Ohio's electoral process into disarray and has opened the door to voter fraud."
A fresh challenge arose Thursday over the presence of polling-place witnesses who can question voters' identities. Democrats went to federal court trying to block those witnesses, saying voters who end up being disqualified would have no meaningful way to appeal.
Although the state offers just seven electoral votes, campaigning has been heavy and legal maneuvering fierce. Iowa could be one of several states where the handling of provisional ballots becomes a legal issue after the election.
Provisional, or backup, ballots will be offered nationwide for this first time this year. The idea is to make sure eligible voters are not turned away from the polls because of a clerical error or some other mistake. Before the election, Democrats lost numerous legal challenges over whether to read the provisional ballot rules broadly enough to cover voters who mistakenly try to vote in the wrong precinct.
After several days of legal back-and-forth over that issue in Iowa this week, the state attorney general said election officials will set aside ballots cast in the wrong precincts, in the event a lawsuit later determines they are legal.
The state, which has five electoral votes, looks like a good bet for a fight over rules for registering new voters, including large numbers of Hispanic citizens casting their first votes. There may be problems at the polls with voters who signed up by mail but did not include identification such as a partial Social Security number on the form. Those voters are supposed to show ID the first time they vote.
With 10 electoral votes, Wisconsin yield fights over liberal rules for absentee voting and voter registration. The state is one of only a handful that allow registration on Election Day.
The Keystone state, with 21 electoral votes, could be the scene of racially charged confrontations on Election Day. Democrats have already complained that Republicans tried to confuse urban voters with an unsuccessful move to relocate polling places shortly before the election. Republicans said the polling places were not accessible to the disabled.