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Published: Monday, 10/18/2004

Provisional ballots could pose problems on Election Day

Things are about to get interesting.

The decision by federal Judge James Carr of Toledo last week that voters can cast provisional ballots at a precinct anywhere in their home county - not only in their home precinct, as Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell had ordered in a directive to county elections officials - means that we could be in for a very long wait to find out who will be the next president of the United States.

Provisional ballots are the electoral process' emergency kit that voters turn to if all else fails. In past elections, if voters arrived at their home precinct and found their name inexplicably missing from the book of registered voters, they could always cast a provisional ballot, to be counted later. The ruling by Judge Carr simply means that voters no longer have to worry about getting to the right precinct anymore.

The courts are no doubt going to keep fiddling with this issue, maybe right up to the election, but if the Carr ruling stands, it very likely means there will be an absolute flood of people who want to cast provisional ballots - perhaps hundreds of thousands statewide in Ohio. If other federal courts in other jurisdictions rule as Judge Carr did, the same will take place around the country, probably involving other swing states.

Consider that, four years ago, George W. Bush won the presidential election here in Ohio by about 160,000 votes, or just under 4 percent of the vote. If the race this year is as close as polls indicate it will be, and there are 250,000 provisional ballots cast, the outcome may not be known for weeks.

Paula Hicks-Hudson, director of the Lucas County board of elections, said she is planning for the possibility that more than 37,000 people might cast provisional ballots in the county - about 11 times the number cast four years ago.

Most of the big increases in provisional balloting will likely take place in Ohio's urban counties, but, if you just take those top 10 counties and assume they will have the same experience for which Lucas County is preparing, we could see far more than 250,000 provisional ballots cast next month.

Four years ago, about 90,000 provisional ballots were counted in Ohio. Others were submitted but were rejected, according Mr. Blackwell's office.

The delay in getting the results to all elections on the ballot stems from the fact that provisional ballots are not counted on Election Day. They are held back because each has to be investigated to make sure the voter was qualified to cast a ballot, and also did not vote in person at his precinct.

And with 10 or 11 times more provisional ballots to process, you can imagine it is going to take much more time, especially if the presidency hangs in the balance.

Observers will be allowed to watch, just like in Palm Beach County, Florida, four years ago. Now, that's a happy thought.

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The idea of forcing voters to cast their ballots in the precinct where they live has some sense behind it. In requiring that, it guarantees that the voter has a ballot in front of him that includes the races he should be deciding. The way our voting system is set up now, a Sylvania resident who votes in Maumee wouldn't be able to decide, for instance, a Sylvania school tax measure because such a measure would not appear on a Maumee ballot.

Given that Lucas County uses paper optical scan ballots, it would be cost-prohibitive to expect every polling location to have every conceivable ballot in the county, just to accommodate provisional voters. So what will apparently happen is that provisional voters will only be allowed to vote on federal races. Local issues will be excluded. But even that raises questions. How are such issues excluded?

Does a poll worker scratch out those local races, or is that done after the fact by elections workers who open the provisional ballot envelope long after the election?

No matter the answer, the process will greatly complicate the process of voting and tabulating this fall. And the more complicated a system becomes, the more likely it is to break down.

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The same Democrats who fervently opposed the use of touch-screen voting machines in this presidential election are the same ones who are now fighting for broad use of provisional ballots that could bottle up this election for weeks.

Is this a coincidence, or some kind of vast left-wing conspiracy?


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