Sunday, October 24, 2004

Appeals court decision: Vote in your precinct

By Joe Kay, The Associated Press
and Greg Korte, The Enquirer

A federal appeals court ruled Saturday that provisional ballots Ohio voters cast outside their own precincts should not be counted, throwing out a lower-court decision that said such ballots are valid as long as they are cast in the correct county.

The ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals supports an order issued by Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell. Democrats contend that the Republican official's rules are too restrictive and allege that they are intended to suppress the vote.

Ohio Democrats Saturday night decided not to file an appeal in the case, one of the first major tests of how such ballots will be handled in a close election. Polls show that the race between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry in the key swing state is too close to call.

Blackwell was giving a speech in Columbus Saturday night, but his spokesman, Carlo Loparo, said the decision "reaffirms Secretary Blackwell's understanding of the law."

Ohio Republican Party Chairman Robert T. Bennett released a statement saying the decision vindicated Blackwell's interpretation of the law.

"The court's decision is a major step in preventing widespread voter registration fraud in Ohio from turning up at the ballot box on Election Day," Bennett's statement said.

"Democrats have filed lawsuits at every opportunity in recent weeks, attempting to broaden or reject every legal protection against voter fraud. This ruling deals a serious blow to their efforts to manipulate the electoral process through litigation."

The Ohio Democratic Party said it would accept the ruling. But the case was brought by multiple plaintiffs, and it was unclear Saturday whether any others would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"At this point, we're not appealing," said Myron Marlin, a spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Party's Voter Protection Program. "There's only a week and a half left. We don't want any more confusion. At this point, we have to educate voters about how to make sure they go to the right polling place."

Federal judges in several states have issued varying rulings on the issue of provisional ballots, which are intended to be backups for eligible voters whose names do not appear on the rolls.

Saturday's ruling was the first time a federal appeals court has weighed in.

The state's Democrats had filed a lawsuit challenging Blackwell's directive instructing county elections boards not to give ballots to voters who come to the wrong precinct and to send them to the correct polling place on Election Day.

Blackwell has said allowing voters to cast a ballot wherever they show up, even if they're not registered to vote there, is a recipe for Election Day chaos.

The Ohio Democratic Party and a coalition of labor and voter rights groups argue that the order by Blackwell, who is black, discriminated against the poor and minorities, who tend to move more frequently.

U.S. District Judge James Carr on Oct. 14 blocked Blackwell's directive, ruling that Ohio voters who show up at the wrong polling place still can cast ballots as long as they are in the county where they are registered. Blackwell appealed to the 6th Circuit.

Similar court battles are under way in other states:

• In Florida, a federal judge ruled Thursday that the state must reject provisional ballots if they are cast in the wrong precinct.

• In Michigan, a federal judge said those ballots must be counted if cast by voters at the wrong precinct but in the right city, township or village. That decision also has been appealed to the 6th Circuit, but the appellate court has yet to issue a ruling in that case.

• In Missouri and Colorado, judges have ruled that votes in the wrong place don't have to be counted.

Provisional ballots are not counted until after the election. They are set aside and inspected by Democratic and Republican election board employees to establish their validity.

States nationwide have adopted individual standards for when a provisional ballot can be cast and counted.

Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia require a provisional ballot to be cast in the correct precinct, or it will not count.

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