By Jim Siegel
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
Forcing Hamilton County to accept ballots regardless of whether they're cast in the right place could spell big trouble, the director of the county board of elections said Wednesday.
Democrats, labor unions and the Ohio League of Women Voters have filed federal lawsuits challenging a directive by Secretary of State Ken Blackwell that only ballots cast at the correct polling place can be counted.
If the lawsuits are successful, John Williams, director of the Hamilton County Board of Elections, envisions a scenario where, instead of the 16,000 provisional ballots cast in 2000, the county is inundated with tens of thousands of ballots that could take weeks to verify.
"It would be extraordinarily difficult to close out the election," he said.
"My huge concern is if this goes forward, you can basically vote anywhere you want. If that is true, then we don't have any control of the election anymore."
The problem, Williams said, is that Ohio is set up on a precinct system, where voters are quickly verified through a sign-in process at their neighborhood polling sites.
Although technology will one day allow for a countywide polling system, it's not here yet, Williams said.
But Tim Burke, county Democratic Party chairman and chairman of the elections board, said Hamilton County in 2000 accepted ballots cast in the wrong place, and it amounted to about 300ballots.
"If people inadvertently vote in the wrong precinct, we shouldn't throw it out," he said, noting that with hundreds of part-time workers on Election Day, mistakes are made.
Democratic leaders believe they have registered far more new voters than Republicans in Ohio. They are concerned that some of them could show up at the wrong polling places and get discouraged - even if a poll worker points them to the correct site.
They have argued in a federal lawsuit that the 2002 federal Help America Vote Act requires that ballots be accepted from anywhere inside the proper county.
A federal judge in Toledo is expected to rule on the case next week.
"If we follow the directive, several thousand voters in Hamilton County will be disenfranchised," said state Sen. Mark Mallory, D-Cincinnati.
On Wednesday, Mallory sent a letter to election board members asking them to ignore Blackwell's directive and accept ballots regardless of whether they're cast at the right polling place.
Blackwell this week sent his own letter to all county election boards after Cuyahoga County elections officials voted to defy the directive.
"Failure to comply with my lawful directives will result in official action, which may include removal of the board and its director," Blackwell wrote.
This issue will be discussed at Friday's Hamilton County board meeting.
"My preference is we continue to conduct the election in a way that gives voters the best chance to have their votes counted," Burke said, adding that the board may have to wait for the federal court ruling.
Election board member and county GOP Chairman Michael Barrett declined comment on the issue.
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