The Justice Department yesterday jumped into an intensely partisan legal battle over the election rules that will govern the upcoming presidential election, arguing in federal court that the Democratic Party has no right to challenge rules in Michigan or elsewhere that govern the counting of "provisional ballots."

A new federal law requires that voters across the country who show up at the polls but whose names do not appear on the rolls be given a provisional ballot, which will count if it can be determined after Election Day that the voter was eligible.

Democrats have challenged rules in a number of states, including Michigan, that prohibit such ballots from being counted if they are cast in the wrong precinct. They contend that provisional ballots are more likely to be cast by low-income or minority voters, and that the Help America Vote Act, which Congress passed in 2002, does not allow for such restrictions on otherwise eligible voters.

Federal judges in several swing states have issued conflicting rulings, which led the Justice Department to file a brief in the still-pending Michigan case, a spokesman said.

"Congress made an explicit decision not to disturb states' long-standing authority to determine how ballots are to be counted, and the United States believes that courts must respect that congressional decision," spokesman Mark Corallo said. (The Florida Supreme Court ruled yesterday that voters may not cast provisional ballots outside their designated precincts.)

Democrats said the Justice Department is wrong on the law, and they questioned the intervention by a Bush administration agency. "Here you have the Justice Department waiting until two weeks before the election and suddenly taking this position, which is the Republican Party's position," said Robert F. Bauer, national counsel for voter protection at the Democratic National Committee.

A Republican for Kerry

It is perhaps not a big surprise, but former Michigan governor William Milliken, a moderate Republican, is unhappy with President Bush's conservative views. What may be more of a surprise is that he endorsed Democrat John F. Kerry yesterday, slamming Bush for "pandering to the extreme right wing."

Milliken, governor from 1969 to 1982, accused the Bush administration of rushing into the Iraq war, pushing tax cuts that benefit the rich and blocking meaningful stem cell research.

"I felt so strongly about the direction of this country that in the end, it wasn't a difficult decision to make," Milliken said in an interview with the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

Milliken issued a three-page statement about his views of Bush's domestic and international agenda. "This president has pursued policies pandering to the extreme right wing across a wide variety of issues and has exacerbated the polarization and the strident, uncivil tone of much of what passes for political discourse in this country today," he said in the statement.