Ohio Voting Count 'Nightmare' Looms

Thursday, 01 Nov 2012 01:07 PM

By David A. Patten and Jim Meyers

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With the presidential election expected to hinge on Ohio, the state’s former secretary of state, GOP stalwart Kenneth Blackwell, is warning that a little-known change in the Buckeye State’s absentee-ballot process could lead to a “nightmare scenario.”

And that scenario could force the entire country to wait 10 days after the election to find out who will be the next president of the United States. It’s a complicated situation, to say the least, but one that could have a far-reaching impact on the Nov. 6 election process.

For the first time in the key swing state’s history, Blackwell says, virtually all Ohio voters this year were mailed an application for an absentee ballot. In previous elections, most Ohio voters had to request an application for an absentee ballot to receive one.

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The concern is that thousands of Ohio voters may complete the absentee-ballot application and receive an absentee ballot, but not bother to complete and mail in the ballot.

Anyone who is sent an absentee ballot — including those who do not complete it and mail it in — and later shows up at the polls on Election Day to cast their ballot in person will be instructed to instead complete a provisional ballot.

And under Ohio election law, provisional ballots cannot be opened until 10 days after an election.

“I would just say that this is a potential nightmare-in-waiting,” says Blackwell.

Blackwell believes that could result in an unprecedented number of provisional ballots being filed – some 250,000 or more. Such a large number of ballots being held, presumably under armed guard, for 10 days until they can be opened, would bring to mind the historic 2000 post-election battle in Florida. That recount was marked by ballot disputes — and inevitably, lawsuits.

“You’re talking about craziness for 10 days,” Blackwell tells Newsmax in an exclusive interview. “They won’t even be opened to be counted for 10 days.”
According to a report by Barry M. Horstman of the Cincinnati Enquirer, absentee-ballot applications were mailed to 6.9 million of Ohio’s 7.8 million registered voters.

As of Oct. 26, Ohio election officials had mailed out 1.3 absentee ballots. Of those absentee ballots, 950,000 had been completed and mailed back in.
That leaves some 350,000 absentee ballots that had been requested and sent to voters, but had not yet been received.

Ohio voters who requested an absentee ballot, but did not complete it and mail it back in, will not be allowed to vote normally.

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Explains Blackwell: “So they go to the polls and say, ‘I want my ballot.’ And [poll workers] say, ‘Oh, we see you applied for an absentee ballot.’ The voter says, ‘Oh, I changed my mind.’ And they say, ‘That’s well and good, but we have to guarantee that you don’t vote twice. You have to fill out a provisional ballot.’”

Provisional ballots are used whenever someone shows up at the polls whose eligibility to vote cannot be immediately verified. Their name may not show up on the voter rolls, for example.

Rather than turn them away, state election officials typically have those individuals indicate their voting preference with a provisional ballot. Once their eligibility to vote has been established, the vote can be counted.

The use of provisional ballots is intended to prevent any voter from casting one ballot by mail, and then a second ballot at the polling place.

Ohio’s current secretary of state, Republican Jon Husted, pushed for the absentee-ballot applications to go out to all voters, according to Blackwell.
In previous Ohio elections, a few counties would automatically send out absentee-ballot applications to all their residents, while the vast majority of counties would not. Husted sought to make the absentee ballot process uniform across Ohio’s 88 counties.

In a news release, Husted said the new system would “help reduce the chance of long lines at the polls during the presidential election, and voters in smaller counties will have the same conveniences as voters in larger counties.”

No one can say how many absentee ballots will remain outstanding as of Election Day. Ohio voters have until Nov. 3 to request an absentee ballot. Election officials will accept and count absentee ballots as long as they are postmarked by Nov. 5, the day before the election.

Ordinarily, the number of provisional ballots outstanding in Ohio probably would be inconsequential. In 2008, according to the Enquirer, only about 70,000 were actually cast.

But uncertainly over perhaps a quarter-million votes would be a serious concern in Ohio, given the historically close margins of victory there.

Democrat Jimmy Carter carried Ohio by only about 11,000 votes over incumbent Republican President Gerald Ford in 1976. In 2004, GOP President George W. Bush carried the state by 118,775 votes over Democratic Sen. John Kerry, in a controversial finish that occurred during Blackwell’s tenure as secretary of state.

As of Wednesday, the RealClearPolitics average of polls in Ohio showed President Barack Obama leading GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney by 2.4 percent. That site, and many others, rate the contest as a toss-up.

No Republican has ever won the presidency without carrying Ohio. The Obama campaign has rested its re-election hopes on a firewall strategy that hinges on winning Ohio’s 18 Electoral College votes. Doing so would greatly complicate Romney’s path to garnering the 270 Electoral College votes needed to capture the presidency.

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If the voter turnout in Ohio matches the 2008 level of 67 percent, some 5,226,000 votes would be cast. Under that scenario, 250,000 provisional ballots would amount to 4.8 percent of the entire vote — well over the current difference between the two candidates, according to RealClearPolitics poll average.

Other than Horstman’s report in the Cincinnati Enquirer, Ohio’s provisional ballot issue has largely flown under the radar of the national political press.

Blackwell tells Newsmax that given the uncertainty over how voters may respond to the widespread, unsolicited invitation to obtain an absentee ballot, the potential for a 10-day delay “is a major concern in terms of the management of a process that is perceived as being free, fair, and as unsuspenseful as possible.”

Hamilton County Board of Elections director Amy Searcy echoes Blackwell’s concern. She told the Enquirer that a 10-day lag while the entire nation waited for Ohio to declare who won its election “would be called my nightmare scenario.”

Matt McClellan, press secretary for the Ohio Secretary of State’s office, tells Newsmax it will be late Tuesday or early Wednesday morning before a final tally is available of how many absentee provisional ballots have been cast.
He confirmed that 2012 marks the first election year in which virtually all registered voters in Ohio were sent absentee ballot applications.

He said the department has not made any projections on how that change might impact absentee and provisional ballot voting trends. However, he emphasized that the vote-counting process in Ohio will be reliable, secure, and in accord with the state’s election laws.

“I disagree with the Enquirer story,” said McClellan. “There is not a nightmare scenario for Ohio.

“If the margin is too close, and we’re just not able to tell definitely at that point, that doesn’t mean anything bad has happened in Ohio. It means the process is proceeding as is required under law. So, will we have outstanding absentees and provisional ballots? Yes. We don’t know how many yet; we won’t know until Election Day.”

Urgent Poll: Cast Your Vote for Romney, Obama Early!

McClellan emphasized that every legal ballot will be counted.

Blackwell agrees there is no way to know yet how many provisional ballots Ohio will ultimately have to count, or if the nation might have a 10-day cliffhanger before the winner of the presidential election is known.

But he adds, “It is not an unreasonable scenario to plan against, given that this is the first time in the history of the state that every registered voter got mailed – unrequested – an absentee ballot [application].”


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