WE'RE not always sure what games are being played down in Columbus, but we certainly hope that Secretary of State Ken Blackwell isn't creating a voting snafu in Ohio similar to the one four years ago in Florida.
Mr. Blackwell has been sending unclear signals on provisional voting, with the result that the Ohio Democratic Party and its Sandusky County affiliate have sued to clear things up prior to the Nov. 2 election.
Provisional voting was mandated in a new federal law in reaction to the 2000 presidential election debacle in Florida, in which thousands of voters were turned away from the polls because their names had been improperly purged from voter registration lists.
The same thing can happen to voters anytime, though, if election officials lose or misplace paperwork, or fail to record a registration in time for it to appear on the official Election Day list. Such mistakes can and do happen, and the fear is that they will be compounded in the flurry of registration campaigns that have swamped many county boards this year.
The Ohio Democrats' lawsuit contends that the federal Help America Vote Act requires provisional ballots to be counted once it is confirmed that voters are properly registered for the federal election, regardless of whether the ballots were cast in the proper precinct.
That is the law as we understand it, but the Republican secretary of state has directed county boards of election to count a provisional ballot only if it turns out that the voter was in fact registered in the precinct where the vote was cast. The distinction is crucial and could result in the disenfranchisement of many new voters who signed up in the extensive registration efforts conducted by both major political parties.
About a month ago, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published a front-page story that detailed a Blackwell directive to county election boards saying that provisional ballots were not to be opened or counted in cases where voters showed up at the wrong precinct.
In response to the furor raised, Mr. Blackwell's spokesman said that the law would be construed liberally and that every effort would be made to ensure that voters could cast ballots for president and any other candidates or issues in which no voting district is involved.
But now, Mr. Blackwell has issued a directive that closely resembles his original restrictive position, arguing that state law allows persons to vote only in a precinct in which they're registered. That position would seem to conflict with the intent of the federal law and, hence, violates the spirit of fairness in which free elections must be held.
We hope the lawsuit, before Judge James Carr in federal court in Toledo, can resolve this conflict in plenty of time for clear instructions to be issued to local election officials. We don't want Ohio to become another Florida.