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Published: Sunday, 10/1/2006

New state law expands absentee balloting

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - Voting isn't just for Election Day anymore.

Starting Tuesday, voters may cast absentee ballots either by mail or in person to avoid lines on Nov. 7 potentially caused by new identification requirements and new voting machines in some counties.

Boards of elections in Cuyahoga, Franklin, and a few other counties have mailed applications for absentee ballots to all registered voters. Franklin County had estimated it would receive 50,000 applications total but already had surpassed that last week. It has updated its projections to 70,000 - 40 percent more than voted absentee in the 2004 election.

"We're urging people to vote absentee, mostly so voters won't have to worry about the hassles, particularly with the ID," said Peg Rosenfield, elections specialist with the League of Women Voters of Ohio.

"There still seems to be endless confusion," she said. "It's just easier to vote an absentee ballot. You just provide the last four digits of your Social Security number. Voting isn't supposed to be a test."

A new law lets voters cast ballots as early as 35 days before an election without having to state one of 16 excuses under prior law as to why they couldn't do it in person on Election Day.

Those who are wary of new computerized touch-screen machines in some counties may feel more comfortable using the old-fashioned paper ballots used to vote absentee.

Ms. Rosenfield noted an application for an absentee ballot is a public record, so applicants should expect to be deluged by campaigns seeking to influence their early votes.

Voters may request absentee ballots in writing from their county boards of elections up until noon on the Saturday before the election, but they should factor in time for back-and-forth mailings. Completed absentee ballots must be received by the time polls close on Election Day.

"It's like doing your Christmas shopping early," Lucas County Board of Elections Director Jill Kelly said. "With absentee ballots, the sooner you get an application to me, the sooner I can get a ballot to you, and the sooner you can get it back to me."

Ms. Kelly cited budgetary concerns for why Lucas County did not tackle a countywide mailing to all registered voters. The board, however, last week ran the first of three planned newspaper ads in an effort to get applications in the hands of would-be absentee voters.

The Lucas County board also plans to make employees available on Oct. 14 at The Andersons' three local locations as well as the Seaway Market Place behind the White Castle at Cherry and Bancroft in Toledo to handle absentee ballot applications, explain the voter ID requirements, and demonstrate electronic voting machines.

In the 2004 presidential election, absentee ballots accounted for 607,636, or 10.1 percent, of the total 5.7 million votes cast. The percentage is expected to climb this year.

"People are locking in their votes early through the convenience of no-fault absentee ballots," Franklin County Board of Elections Director Matt Damschroder. "It's changing the dynamics of elections."

Applications also are available through the Ohio secretary of state's Web site at www.sos.state.oh.us or at boards of election by mail, by phone, or in person. Prepared voters may apply and vote on the spot at county boards.

Political parties and some candidates also are putting applications directly into the hands of voters.

Written applications for absentee ballots must include either the voter's driver's license number, the last four digits of his Social Security number, or a copy of a valid photo ID, military ID, utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck, or a government document displaying the voter's name and current address.

Early voting may be complicated by the fact that many may cast ballots before they've even seen a TV commercial for some down-ticket contests.

There are also legal challenges pending that could yet affect statewide ballot issues. As of last week, the secretary of state's office had determined that four had met the necessary signature requirements: a slots-for-scholarship proposal, two competing indoor smoking bans, and an increase in Ohio's minimum wage.

However, a ballot issue asking voters to repeal parts of a new state law reducing benefits for some injured workers will appear on absentee ballots despite the fact that the secretary of state's office has determined it failed to meet the signature requirements. The dispute is likely to be resolved by the courts.

"The boards [of elections] simply would not count votes for that issue [if it is removed from the ballot]," said James Lee, spokesman for the secretary of state's office. "It is not uncommon for there to be changes to the ballot."

He likened it to a candidate who dies or withdraws just before an election or the late 2004 decision that found Ralph Nader had not qualified for Ohio's presidential ballot.

While some voters may be more comfortable with paper absentee ballots than computerized touch-screen machines used by Lucas and many other counties, Edward "Ned" Foley, an Ohio State University law professor with expertise in election law, cautioned that absentee ballots are not necessarily more likely to be counted than their electronic counterparts.

He noted that a higher-than-usual absentee vote could lead to delays in the reporting of results on election night.

"Counting paper ballots accurately is not an easy process," he said. "The more absentee paper ballots there are in an election, the more questions will be asked as to whether they've been counted properly. We may solve problems by avoiding long lines, but we may create back-end problems.

"There's only one copy," he said. "It can get lost, defaced, or compromised more easily than an electronic vote backed up with a memory card. It's not obvious to me that the average citizen should have more confidence that an absentee ballot will be counted."

There are also concerns that some voters could be unduly pressured by others if they're filling out their ballot at the kitchen table rather than behind a curtain in a polling place.

Problems experienced in the May primary with Cuyahoga County's first use of new voting technology help explain one reason that county is so aggressively encouraging absentee ballots. Although largely attributed to human error, the problems delayed the vote count from Ohio's most populous county and fueled allegations that Ohio's new voting infrastructure isn't free of bugs yet.

"If they're more comfortable with [absentee paper ballots], they'll have the opportunity to vote accordingly," Mr. Lee said. "But voters should not be concerned about the reliability of electronic voting.

"In some counties in Ohio, the boards of elections have been using electronic machines for 20 years," he said. "The secretary of state's office had independent security testing done on all the voting machines for Ohio. All of the electronic machines have been approved at the federal and state levels."



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