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Published: Sunday, 12/3/2006

Fall balloting marks record for absentees

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Record numbers of northwest Ohioans voted without setting foot in a polling place Nov. 7 - the first general election in which residents could vote absentee for any reason or no reason at all.

"I think anything that will encourage more people to vote is a good idea, and this does that," said Dan Pilrose, deputy director of the Lucas County Board of Elections, which handled 20,976 absentee ballots, compared with 14,208 in the last gubernatorial election four years ago.

Elections officials from across the region agreed that so-called "no-fault" absentee voting makes voting more convenient, but they cautioned that the option comes with a cost.

Some boards hired extra employees to process the hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of requests for absentee ballots, while others simply stayed late to keep up with the work in the weeks leading up to the election.

"We're salaried, so we worked until it was done," said Janet Leahy, director of the Seneca County Board of Elections in Tiffin. "We would've loved to have extra help, but the commissioners didn't have money for it."

Seneca County had more than twice as many absentee ballots to prepare, mail, and process as it did in 2002 - 2,540 residents voted absentee this November, compared with 1,202 four years ago.

In Henry County, Deputy Director Sandra Kurtz said she and the director racked up more than 100 hours of compensatory time, primarily because of handling the 1,319 absentee ballots. In 2002, just 475 Henry County residents voted absentee.

Larger counties, like Lucas, Erie, and Wood, brought in extra help.

Terry Burton, director of the Wood County Board of Elections in Bowling Green, said the board hired four additional full-time workers who worked "a solid month" leading up to the election, in large part to handle absentee ballot requests and mailings. Nearly 6,000 people requested ballots, although only 5,218 were returned. In 2002, just 2,459 people voted absentee.

"It is an expensive venture," Mr. Burton said, adding that he figured each absentee ballot cost about $2 to print and mail. That doesn't include extra staff costs, which were around $5,500.

"We did not budget for a jump like that," he said, because the state legislature did not adopt no-fault absentee voting until late in 2005.

The new law allows Ohioans to vote as early as 35 days before an election and does not require that they meet one of the 16 requirements that previously existed, including military service, out-of town commitments, illness, or disability.

In Michigan, voters must fall into one of six categories to vote absentee: if they are 60 or older, unable to vote without assistance, out of town on election day, in jail or awaiting trial, cannot go to the polls for religious reasons, or are working as an election official in a precinct outside their own.

Ohioans who vote absentee must provide some form of identification with their application, but that can be a copy of a utility bill or paycheck, a driver's license number, or the last four digits of their Social Security number.

Organizations like the League of Women Voters encouraged absentee voting this year "specifically because we were concerned about possibilities for screw-ups at the polls," said Peg Rosenfield, an elections specialist with the group. "If you voted absentee, there was a paper trail. If you voted by mail particularly, you'd know your vote would get counted, and there wasn't all this ID hassle."

Local elections officials said they liked the fact that absentee voting is convenient for people and they expect to see it gradually boost voter turnout as people realize it's an option.

"If you talk to other states that have done no-fault or early voting, eventually they even see decreased lines at polling places, but that's more of a progressive thing over the years," Mr. Burton said.

Monette Garn, deputy director of the Ottawa County Board of Elections, said her county reduced its number of precincts from 78 to 47 this year, which resulted in lines at some polling places for the first time.

"In little old Ottawa County, people aren't used to waiting," she said, adding that she expects more people to vote absentee the next time around. As it was, the county had nearly double its normal number of absentee voters.

"I think it is only going to increase as people learn more about it," Ms. Garn said. "We always say isn't it a shame we have so many people that don't vote. When you have people coming out of the woodwork to vote, that's a plus. It's more work, but that's what we're here for."

Blade staff writers Jane Schmucker, Jim Sielicki, and Benjamin Alexander-Bloch contributed to this report.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-353-5972.



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