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Ohio's strict ballot rules to cost votes, critics say

Saturday, September 18, 2004
Scott Hiaasen
Plain Dealer Reporter

Thousands of votes in Ohio could be tossed in this year's presidential election because new state rules on provisional ballots are still too strict, voting-rights advocates warned Friday.

Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell this week issued an order to all local election offices detailing how to handle provisional ballots the special ballots given to voters who show up at the wrong polling places or whose registrations can't be confirmed on Election Day.

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Blackwell said provisional ballots will be issued only to voters who, after giving their address, appear to be in the correct precinct but don't show up in registration rolls.

Voting-rights groups had hoped Blackwell would be more liberal about accepting ballots from voters at the wrong precincts.

Because congressional districts shifted after the 2000 census, many precincts and polling places have changed since the last federal election - meaning many voters who haven't cast a ballot in the last four years could go to the wrong location.

Also, legions of new voters are expected at the polls this year because of intense voter-registration drives. Many of those new voters could be confused about what precinct they're in.

"A lot of people's votes won't be counted," said Dan Tokaji, a voting-rights lawyer and a professor at Ohio State University's law school.

In 2000, nearly 23,000 provisional ballots were cast in Cuyahoga County, including 7,900 in Cleveland. Michael Vu, director of the county Board of Elections, predicts that the numbers will be higher this year.

Blackwell, when confronted with concerns about provisional ballots last month, appeared to soften the rules. But his new ruling this week affirmed that Ohio will take a tougher approach with provisional ballots than other states.

Voting-rights advocates say the state's orders appear to contradict the Help America Vote Act. The federal reform law encourages the use of provisional ballots as a failsafe so legitimate voters aren't turned away from the polls.

HAVA says election officials must give a provisional ballot to any voter who swears he or she is eligible to vote in that jurisdiction. But HAVA leaves it to state law to determine when these provisional votes will be counted. In Ohio, the law says ballots cast in the wrong precinct don't count.

Blackwell allowed one exception: Election officials can count provisional ballots from voters who receive the wrong ballots in "split precincts," areas with multiple voting districts in the same precinct. One precinct, for example, may cover voters in two different school districts - requiring two different ballots.

Blackwell's spokesman, Carlo LoParo, said this will protect people who receive the wrong ballot because poll workers made a mistake. "We're not going to penalize the voter over poll-worker error," LoParo said.

But Vu, the Cuyahoga County elections director, said split precincts are a minor problem, Most provisional ballots, he said, are cast by voters who show up at the wrong polling places.

He and other elections directors also worry that Blackwell's ruling is too confusing.

Poll workers, when dealing with voters in the wrong precincts, may be tempted to just "give them a ballot and move on," said Michael Sciortino, director of the Mahoning County Board of Elections.

Ohio's law on provisional ballots differs from that of other states, such as Pennsylvania, where the ballots of voters in the wrong precincts will count in federal and statewide contests, but not in local races where residence determines a voter's eligibility.

Blackwell's ruling may also invite lawsuits from voting-rights groups. Election officials in both Missouri and Florida have been sued for adopting a stance nearly identical to Ohio's.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

[email protected], 216-999-4927


© 2004 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.


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