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Published: Monday, 10/25/2004

Will confusion reign on Election Day?

With the huge influx of new voters into the election system this year more than 38,000 in Lucas County alone there is likely to be a fair amount of election day confusion: people showing up at the wrong precinct, people not knowing how to fill in the ovals on optical-scan ballots, and confusion over challengers who will staff many voting locations.

This is why the battle over new rules governing provisional balloting has been so important.

Paula Hicks-Hudson, director of elections in Lucas County, said she expects 10 times more provisional ballots to be cast next week than were cast four years ago, largely because of the new federal law passed after 2000 that liberalizes who should be allowed to cast such a ballot.

Provisional ballots are essentially emergency ballots that people cast when they have no other voting option. A federal appeals court panel in Cincinnati decided on Saturday which provisional ballots should be counted, siding with Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, and against federal Judge James Carr of Toledo.

Judge Carr recently ruled that voters could cast provisional ballots at any precinct in their home county and they would be counted. Mr. Blackwell argued that voters must cast provisional ballots in their home precinct.

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While the matter is now apparently settled, Ms Hicks-Hudson is among those asking why this stuff wasn t hammered out months ago, when there was time to argue back and forth. Could it be, she asks, that everyone was so focused on the part of the new federal Help America Vote Act that governs the purchase of new voting machinery that the part of the bill that had to do with voting rights was overlooked?

It may be that this did not become an issue before now because Mr. Blackwell believed he understood the new federal provisional voting rules. The appeals court decision shows he was right.

A serious problem was averted with the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling Saturday. Judge Carr s decree meant that voters casting provisional ballots outside their home precinct could only vote for President and U.S. senator.

Under his ruling, tens of thousands who might have been inclined to cast provisional ballots in Lucas County would have been forced to ignore local measures and candidates. Essentially, the court order would have triggered self-disenfranchisement on a massive scale.

Consider that almost 190,000 people in the county voted four years ago. It s a pretty good guess that this year we will have more voters, perhaps 5 percent more. So assume 200,000 voters countywide. If, as Ms. Hicks-Hudson expects, 35,000 might cast provisional ballots, as many 17 percent of the countywide vote might have been barred from voting on local races.

And that s before the natural drop-off of between 20 percent and 30 percent that occurs when people vote for president but then skip the local judicial races and money measures.

Given that conventional political wisdom is that most people who are motivated to vote for money measures are motivated to vote no, this fall off caused by the provisional balloting might have spelled disaster for issues otherwise headed for victory. Local officials who tuned out this weekend and missed the court ruling might have dodged a major bullet without even knowing it. It s one less thing to worry about.

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Not that we are now worry-free.

All year we have been bracing for a terrorist attack before the election, closely mirroring what happened in Spain. That attack came the Thursday before the weekend election. But while that election had the effect of turning voters against a regime that had supported the war in Iraq, replacing it with one that doesn t, the same result is not predictable here. In fact, it s a reasonable prediction that the country would rally around President Bush, as happened in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Now comes an ugly scenario: that the election goes off without any terrorism, but the result is muddled because of lawsuits and millions of uncounted provisional ballots. Then, with the country having voted but not knowing the winner, we get hit.

Who, then, does the nation turn to for leadership? How would such an attack affect the election controversy? Would one candidate immediately surrender claim to the White House? Does President Bush dare a military response under such conditions? These are questions no one wants to face, but we should acknowledge the possibility that we may have to.



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