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Published: Tuesday, 8/14/2012

Edict looms on limits for early voting

Secretary of state could scuttle extended hours

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS -- Faced with accusations that his tie-breaking votes are limiting in-person early voting in urban counties that supported President Obama four years ago, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted said Monday he may issue a statewide edict putting all counties on the same page.

If he does, that would mean no extended hours or weekend days in Ohio for voters to cast absentee ballots in person at county boards of election or their satellite locations.

"I am going to look at the matter and listen to what feedback I get," Mr. Husted said.

"I may -- and the emphasis is on 'may'-- establish through directive uniform hours of operation throughout the state."

He said it's unclear he has the authority to do that.

"There's nothing preventing me from doing it, but there's nothing we see that allows me to do it," he said. "That's an issue we have to look at. … There's no decision that will make everybody happy."

Under Ohio law, county boards of election set their own hours, creating a patchwork across 88 counties.

The only time Mr. Husted has a say in those hours is when bipartisan boards of election deadlock 2-2, forcing the state's top elections official, a Republican, to break ties.

County boards were on notice that, if they couldn't reach agreement, Mr. Husted's tie-breaking vote would favor limiting early voting to normal business hours Monday through Friday.

Mr. Husted has come under fire from Democrats because all of those deadlocked votes to date have occurred in urban counties -- Lucas, Cuyahoga, Franklin, Summit, and Hamilton.

Democratic board members pushed for expanded hours while Republicans wanted to restrict early voting to existing hours, and in each case Mr. Husted sided with the GOP.

Montgomery County has been one exception, with the elections board able to reach agreement on its own.

Mr. Husted said he has consistently picked the more restrictive hours because he doesn't want to be in the position of forcing counties with limited budgets to pay for expanded hours they can't afford.

Meanwhile, some election boards in suburban counties and rural counties that backed Republican John McCain in 2008 have reached bipartisan agreements for longer evening and weekend hours.

"It's not an either-or choice. We can have extended hours and have uniformity," said Mike Bricker, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

"I'm in Cuyahoga County, but I cannot vote later into the evening," he said. "I can go 10 miles down to Medina County, and, if I were registered there, I could vote on weekends and in the evening. All voters in all 88 counties should have access to the same thing.

"We've seen all of the benefits of early voting since it was expanded in 2006," he said. "Elections have been a lot better and easier. We have voters getting problems solved before Election Day. We have fewer long lines and less confusion on Election Day."

On Wednesday, the Obama campaign will be in federal court in Columbus to challenge a new state law that cuts off early voting for everyone at the end of business on the Friday before the election. The campaign argues that cutting off early voting is unconstitutional because other voters -- members of the military and their families -- may vote during those final three days.

Republican Mitt Romney, who will campaign today in eastern and southern Ohio, has tried to turn the argument around, contending the lawsuit is a threat to military early voting.

Mr. Husted has long criticized the inconsistency of election systems across the state, backing a controversial law passed by Republicans last year that shortened the windows for both absentee and early voting and set uniform voting hours. When the law was threatened by Democrats with a voter referendum, Republicans repealed it, reverting back to the patchwork system.

Because of last week's tie-breaker in Lucas County, voters who wish to cast their absentee ballots in person rather than by mail may do it only during normal business hours from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 a.m. Monday through Friday. The sole exception would be on Nov. 2, the Friday immediately preceding the election, when the office will be open until 6 p.m.

Yet to be decided is where that early voting will take place, another matter of a 2-2 deadlock. By a margin of nearly 2 to 1, Lucas voters went for Mr. Obama in 2008 over Mr. McCain.

Ron Rothenbuhler, chairman of both the Lucas County Board of Elections and county Democratic Party, said he's all for consistency statewide as long as it comes with expanded early voting hours. He said board Republicans knew what the end result would be if they forced a tie.

"Certainly, in strong Democratic counties like Lucas, people are more hourly workers, which means there's increasing opportunity for things to happen -- your babysitter didn't show up, you have a flat tire, you have to work overtime if you're lucky to have a good job," Mr. Rothenbuhler said. "What are we afraid of?"

Jon Stainbrook, Lucas County Republican Party chairman and elections board member, said he was unaware at the time he cast his vote that Mr. Husted had indicated his position would be the same in every county where there was a tie.

"Jon Husted has made it so convenient and consistent across the state where you don't have one county like Lucas paying for postage [to send absentee ballot applications to registered voters] and people in Delaware County who have to pay.

"That means you can have a vote in the privacy and convenience in your own living room. You don't need extended voting hours."

So far, northwest Ohio election boards in Wood, Fulton, Hancock, and Ottawa counties have not decided to expand their hours for the convenience of early voting, although some have left the door to revisit the issue later.

"At this point, we are going to wait to see what kind of impact the secretary of state sending absentee applications to all active voters has," said Debbie Hazard, deputy director of the board of elections.

"We will wait to see how many people come to our office to vote, and, if need be, we will then set extended hours," she said.

Wood supported Mr. Obama in 2008.

Sandusky County, which narrowly backed Mr. Obama four years ago, has decided to expand its hours to 9 p.m. on the Fridays of Oct. 12, 19, and 26 and will hold hours each of following Saturdays until noon.

"We always have," said Barb Tuckerman, deputy director of the county board of elections.

"Why wouldn't we? Our job is to help people have the opportunity to vote."

Rural Henry County, which kept the election board office open until 6:30 p.m. four years ago during the last week before the election, is expected to decide Thursday whether to do it again, said elections Deputy Director Grace Speiser. The county went to Mr. McCain in 2008.

Mr. Husted has agreed to mass-mail applications for absentee ballots to all registered voters in the state, his compromise in addressing what he said were inequities with such mailings only in counties that could afford it. The practice had been more commonly employed in urban counties such as Lucas.

"It's easy to vote in Ohio," he said. "You can start voting in person or by mail 35 days in advance of the election. Every voter will have an absentee ballot request mailed to their home.

"As a result, everyone will have more than 750 hours to vote without walking out of their front doors and leaving home. In Michigan, they don't even have early voting."

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com, or 614-221-0496.



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