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Published: Wednesday, 10/20/2004

Helping America vote

IN RULING in favor of a broad use of provisional ballots in the Nov. 2 presidential election, U.S. District Judge James Carr has come up with a reasonable interpretation of what Congress intended when it passed the Help America Vote Act two years ago.

But don't take our word for it. Rep. Bob Ney, the Republican congressman from St. Clairsville, Ohio, who was a principal author of the federal law, feels the same way.

"Let's say I walk into a precinct and I say I want to vote," Mr. Ney explained. "They say I'm not registered here, but I think I should be I should be given a provisional ballot."

Congress clearly intended for federal law to supersede state laws when it comes to ensuring that voters aren't denied a vote for president and other federal offices because of mistakes by election officials - lost or misplaced paperwork, failure to get registrations on the voter rolls, and the like.

HAVA was adopted in response to the unconscionable situation in Florida in the contested 2000 election, in which thousands of qualified voters were denied ballots because their names had been improperly purged from registration lists by state officials.

Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, who is appealing Judge Carr's ruling, has hewed to a narrow view of HAVA, maintaining that provisional ballots should only be counted if it turns out that a voter had showed up in the correct precinct to begin with. That interpretation negates the intent of HAVA, which was to make sure voters aren't disenfranchised because of bureaucratic bungling.

Judge Carr, in his ruling, directed that provisional ballots be issued to any voter who is registered in the county. Provisional votes are to be checked later and counted if the voter is qualified.

We should not be surprised by Mr. Blackwell's narrow stance, since this is the same Republican secretary of state who joined forces with the Bush campaign in Florida after the 2000 vote to insist that no wrongdoing had taken place. And it's the same chief election officer who, before being forced to reverse course recently, ordered county boards of election to accept new voter registrations only if they were printed on a certain weight paper.

As always, Mr. Blackwell talks an inclusive game, but his official actions have been tilted toward suppressing registration and voting. That's not what Congress intended. Judge Carr made the right call.



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