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Published: Tuesday, 8/23/2011

Mass-mailing absentee ballot requests blocked


COLUMBUS -- With the fate of newly passed election reforms still up in the air, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted Monday issued a directive prohibiting counties from mass-mailing absentee ballot applications.

In the past, Lucas County and a number of other large urban counties have mailed such applications to all registered voters, reasoning that a higher use of absentee ballots would reduce pressure on polling places on Election Day.

The recently passed House Bill 194 contains numerous elections reforms, including a prohibition on this practice. But a petition effort to subject that law to voter referendum has raised doubt as to whether it will take effect in time for the Nov. 8 election.

The referendum effort is being led by a coalition that includes Mr. Husted's Democratic predecessor, Jennifer Brunner. If the petition effort is successful, voters could not weigh in on the law until November, 2012.

Mr. Husted, a Republican, has argued for uniformity in absentee balloting, noting it is unfair that smaller counties may not be able to afford a similar mailing.

"That all counties do not mail unsolicited applications for absent voter ballots creates a disparate availability of access to the franchise for voters across this state, certainly for statewide elections but sometimes within the same congressional, state House or state Senate districts, school districts, and municipalities," reads Mr. Husted's directive to county elections officials.

Spokesman Matt McClellan said Mr. Husted has recently had to break tied votes on this issue by boards of elections in Cuyahoga and Hamilton counties.

"Given that there's some apparent confusion on the matter, the secretary chose to issue a directive to serve as a clarification for all boards in case there might be others wondering what to do on this," he said.

The directive does not prohibit an elections board from placing applications for absentee ballots on its Web site or placing them at public places such as libraries. It also recognizes the ability of a voter to verbally request a ballot via telephone or Internet.

Mr. Husted cited an opinion issued by Ms. Brunner in 2009 when breaking a tied vote in Franklin County. She noted that neighboring counties Delaware and Fairfield did not mass-mail absentee ballot applications as Franklin did, giving Franklin voters an advantage.

But Ms. Brunner Monday noted that a federal court ruling since then out of U.S. District Court in Cincinnati dismissed a case brought by voters seeking to impose a uniform system on all counties.

"There's got to be some recognition of the difference between urban and rural counties and the sheer number of voters urban areas are dealing with," she said. "This provision in House Bill 194 doesn't stand alone. It stands with other provisions that says poll workers cannot tell voters they're not in the right precincts and shortens the early voting period for in person and by mail. …You have to look at the totality of the circumstances."

The referendum effort has until Sept. 29 to file at least 231,147 valid signatures of registered voters to put House Bill 194 on hold until at least next year.

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

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