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Published: Sunday, 10/9/2005

Support shifts on absentee vote reform

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - A proposed constitutional amendment that would open early voting by absentee ballot to any registered voter for any reason was originally the exception to the rule.

Even as the largely Republican opposition lined up to oppose other election-reform proposals on redistricting, campaign contributions, and election administration on the Nov. 8 ballot, it was divided on letting more voters use absentee ballots.

The House GOP inserted something similar into an election-reform bill the chamber overwhelmingly sent to the Senate in May. Republican heavyweights, Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and Attorney General Jim Petro, broke from the GOP pack to support this issue.

But now, early voting and no-fault absentee ballots, some form of which is in place in nearly half the states in the country, suddenly are not as popular. The provision added to the House bill is in danger in the Senate. And Mr. Blackwell has changed his mind.

"It's easier to simply urge people to vote against all of them," said Herb Asher, Ohio State University political science professor and spokesman for Reform Ohio Now, the largely Democrat coalition pushing all four amendments.

Voters will be asked to amend the Ohio Constitution to allow any voter to cast an absentee ballot by mail or in person at the county board of elections up to 35 days before the election. No longer would a voter have to attest he can't make it to the polls on Election Day due to age, illness, infirmity, military duty, or out-of-town commitments.

"I'm really puzzled as to why they would oppose it at this point and time," said Rep. Edna Brown (D., Toledo), who twice introduced non-fault absentee ballot bills before the idea was amended into House Bill 3 earlier this year.

"Why all of a sudden are some people who were supporting it now saying they oppose it?" she asked. "Why are they having a change of heart?"

Blackwell spokesman Carlo LoParo said the secretary of state continues to generally support the concept.

"No-fault is an outstanding idea, and is something the state of Ohio should have," he said. "But to insert this provision into the state constitution is not a good idea. It has several inherent flaws."

He pointed to a provision allowing voters who requested an absentee ballot but still show up at a polling place on Election Day to cast a provisional ballot. The provisional ballot would be counted only after the county board of elections confirms it didn't receive an absentee ballot from that voter.

"It allows voters to vote twice," said Mr. LoParo. "It's a very important, problematic issue. We're concerned the boards of election won't catch duplicate provisional and absentee ballots."

Critics also take aim at a provision requiring county boards of election to count any absentee ballot postmarked as late as Election Day and received as late as 10 days after the election. Currently, absentee ballots must be received by the close of polls on Election Day to be counted.

They say a massive absentee ballot vote could mean the public may not know the winner of a close race for days. Last November, more than 600,000 Ohioans voted absentee during a presidential election won by President Bush by less than 119,000 votes.

"Given the huge long lines that occurred in Ohio last year, there's the sense that we need to solve that problem somehow. The easiest and perhaps least expensive solution is to allow more in-home voting," said Edward (Ned) Foley, an Ohio State law professor specializing in election law. He is not affiliated with Reform Ohio Now.

Despite the limited reasons for which absentee ballots are allowed under current law, Mr. LoParo noted Ohio doesn't have "absentee ballot police" who show up at a voter's home on Election Day to make sure he's out of town as promised.

"You can make the argument that political parties currently consider Ohio's absentee ballot law to be no-fault absentee in terms of the aggressive use or absentee ballots in last year's election," he said. "Applications for absentee ballots were mailed to quite a few Ohioans."

The bill that passed the House also included language allowing the casting of provisional ballots when receipt of an absentee ballot is in question. It does not, however, include the later date for receipt of absentee ballots.

"When it comes to absentee and early voting, we're not path-beaters," said Mr. Asher. "Oregon has gone to entirely mail ballots. It's not particularly new.

"The opponents are trying to scare people by talking about fraud, which is a false issue," he said. "But this is more a recognition that many citizens want to vote, but it takes time to vote."

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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