Tuesday, September 28, 2004
Ballot access goes to court
Democrats want location rules relaxed
By John McCarthy, The Associated Press
and Jim Siegel, Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS - The Ohio Democratic Party sued Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell on Monday to allow voters to be able to cast ballots - even at the wrong polling place - as long as they are in the county where they are registered.
Blackwell, a Republican, sent county boards of elections a directive on Sept. 16 ordering them to deny provisional ballots to voters who show up at the wrong polling place.
Instead, poll workers must call the board and find out the correct polling place and send the voter there.
Provisional ballots are provided to registered voters who have moved but have not updated their registration with the boards. They are set aside and inspected by Democratic and Republican board employees to ensure they are valid.
Democratic leaders said at a news conference that the Help America Vote Act, which Congress passed in 2002, allows voters to cast provisional ballots at any polling place in their home county.
Democrats said that would affect their candidates more than it would Republican candidates.
Poor people who tend to vote for Democrats move more often than people who vote for Republicans, said Franklin County Commissioner Mary Jo Kilroy, a Democrat seeking re-election, and Democratic Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman.
"I am appalled that 36 days before the election, a move is made to suppress the votes of Ohioans," Coleman said.
Kilroy added: "The secretary of state should not be sowing seeds of confusion."
Blackwell's directive alters past procedure for Hamilton County, where of the 16,000 provisional ballots cast in 2000, about 300 came from people voting in the wrong precinct.
Tim Burke, county Democratic Party chairman and chairman of the board of elections, said the county makes an effort to count every ballot. If a registered voter casts a ballot in the wrong precinct, only votes specific to the wrong precinct are tossed out, he said.
The lawsuit was filed against Blackwell in federal court in Toledo.
It asks U.S. District Judge James Carr to prevent Blackwell's directive from taking effect before the Nov. 2 election. Blackwell will fight the lawsuit, spokesman Carlo LoParo said.
The federal voting act cedes the rules governing provisional voting to each state and Ohio law requires voters to cast ballots at the correct polling place, he said.
"Ohio has had provisional balloting for over a decade and it has served voters well," LoParo said. "Ohio law specifically states that a voter must cast a ballot at the correct precinct or at the county board of elections or a place designated by the board of elections."
A bipartisan committee of lawmakers, elections officials, academic experts and community groups in 2003 studied Ohio law to make sure it was in line with federal law.
"The committee concluded that provisional ballot requirements were in compliance," LoParo said.
Blackwell's directive, LoParo said, is in line with one issued in 1994 by then-Secretary of State Bob Taft.
"And quite frankly, finding your current polling place is not that difficult," LoParo said. "If an individual walks to the wrong polling place, they can easily walk to the correct one."
John Williams, executive director of the Hamilton County Board of Elections, said he doesn't care how the provisional balloting issue gets resolved - as long as it's resolved soon.
"I'm happy, quite frankly, that they're challenging it now because ... we want an understanding prior to the election," he said.
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