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Published: Tuesday, 8/19/2008

GOP warns of suit over voting law

Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner says there's enough time to check the legitimacy of absentee ballots. Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner says there's enough time to check the legitimacy of absentee ballots.

COLUMBUS - The Obama campaign hopes to capitalize on a Republican-approved quirk in Ohio election law by transporting enthusiastic youths who show up at campaign rallies to local election boards where they will register to vote and immediately cast absentee ballots.

Such votes could be crucial in Ohio where polls have Democrat Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain locked in a statistical dead heat.

The Ohio Republican Party yesterday threatened legal action if Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner allows Ohioans to simultaneously register to vote and cast absentee ballots between Sept. 25 and Oct. 3.

The move could benefit Mr. Obama, who enjoys a 2-to-1 lead over Mr. McCain among 18-to 34-year-olds, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released last month.

"This is one of many ways we'll be encouraging our supporters to skip the lines on Election Day and make sure their vote is cast early," Isaac Baker, an Obama spokesman, said last week.

The feud between the GOP and Ohio's chief elections officer, a Democrat, stems from Ms. Brunner's directive to boards of election last week that a 2005 absentee ballot law enacted by a Republican legislature and governor created a five-day window for registering and voting the same day.

So called no-fault absentee voting, first used in the 2006 primary, allows electors to cast absentee ballots 35 days before the election without having to offer an excuse. The deadline for registering to vote is 30 days before the election, creating the five-day overlap.

"She is encouraging voters to break state law, and is doing something that goes beyond the power that she has been given by the General Assembly," said Rep. Kevin DeWine, the state GOP deputy chairman who was in the House when the law was enacted.

Ms. Brunner said election boards have enough time to verify whether would-be voters are legally qualified before absentee ballots are counted on Nov. 4.

Brunner spokesman Jeff Ortega said the secretary is moving ahead with the plan.

"Secretary of State Brunner has provided clear and consistent statewide guidance based on long-standing Ohio law," he said.

Rep. Larry Wolpert (R., Hilliard), the law's sponsor, said his bill did not change dates, but rather expanded who is permitted to vote absentee. The general deadlines for registration and absentee ballots haven't changed since the 1980s.

Mr. DeWine said state law prohibits election boards from handing absentee ballots to those who have not been registered for at least 30 days.

Wood County Elections Director Terry Burton can't recall it being an issue. He said if someone had registered and asked for an absentee ballot during that five-day window, he would likely have been handed a ballot.

"We were reading each statute and taking each one at face value," he said. "To my knowledge, nothing makes them exclusive of the other. Each process was what it was. We are required to register them and we're required to absentee vote people. If they happened at the same time, it wasn't our issue."

Lucas County Elections Director Linda R. Howe said, "No one can remember it ever happening."

This report includes information from the Associated Press.

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