Ohio shaping up as ground zero for Election Day disputes

 

Twelve years after voting problems delayed the 2000 presidential election results, Ohio, possibly the most pivotal state on the political map, sits at the center of a dispute that once again could put the outcome in limbo for weeks.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey and New York, damage from Hurricane Sandy sent election officials scrambling to create makeshift polling stations and to limit what could be long lines and confusion for hundreds of thousands of people.

New Jersey officials said they will allow voters displaced from their home as a result of the storm to cast ballots by email or fax. But they also created a legal, logistical and political tempest by not requiring displaced people to provide a paper backup to prevent vote fraud.

And in Florida, ground zero 12 years ago in the debate over the counting of disputed ballots, a sense of calm on Monday settled over the election sites set up for voters to cast absentee ballots, following a ruckus on Sunday when officials temporarily shut down a site because of the long lines and hours-long waits.

Tempers flared, people chanted and banged on the windows before officials eventually apologized and allowed voting to resume.

But it is in Ohio, where the polls in the race between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney remain tight, where a key dispute is brewing. It centers on an emergency motion from a labor union and homeless advocacy group asking a federal court to clarify whether Ohio voters who cast provisional ballots – or the workers who process them – are responsible for incomplete or missing identification information on those ballots.

The ruling, from U.S. District Court Judge Algenon Marbley, will not come in time for Election Day. But he is expected to decide the case by Nov. 17, when Ohio counts provisional ballots.

The case is the result of Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted’s order last week that county elections officials should not accept provisional ballots if they include incomplete information on the type of identification the voter used to obtain the ballot.

“The directive is issued to provide uniformity across Ohio’s 88 county boards of elections,” Husted wrote.

At a hearing Monday, Marbley asked for oral arguments from Husted’s office on Wednesday and for replies on Thursday from the plaintiffs – the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and the Service Employees International Union Local 1199.

They contend that Husted’s directive violates a recent court decision on provisional ballots and is contrary to statements made by Husted’s legal team at an Oct. 24 hearing. In their filing, the attorneys say the responsibility for writing down a voter’s form of identification "unambiguously rests squarely with the poll worker under Ohio governing statutes."

In an briefing with reporters Monday night, Husted said state law contradicts itself on whether voters or poll workers should fill in the information. Husted said he and the plaintiff attorneys couldn't agree on how to resolve the dispute before the election. He said "common sense dictates" that voters "would want the ability to complete that process."

Provisional ballots are provided at polling places to voters who cannot verify their identities, or whose names may not appear on the list of registered voters. Once the voter’s information on the provisional ballots is verified, the provisional ballots are counted after the election.

In 2008, more than 200,000 provisional ballots were cast in Ohio. Experts say more than 300,000 could be cast in this election.

"If the margin of victory for either candidate is less than the outstanding number of provisional ballots, we won’t actually know who won Ohio and perhaps the presidency until Nov. 17," said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.

Ohio’s system for verifying registered voters has also come under fire after 33,000 applicants for absentee ballots were wrongfully denied their requests. They were told that they were not registered to vote when, in fact, they were.

State officials blamed the oversights on a data-sharing problem with the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

Last week, a state voter education organization notified Husted’s office that nearly 900 voters in the Cleveland area and an estimated 6,000 statewide may have been denied absentee ballots because of incomplete data checks by local elections officials.

In response, Husted sent a separate directive last week urging county election boards to try "at least one (of four) additional search criteria" if an applicant’s name didn’t appear on the list of registered voters.

In New Jersey, voters dislocated by Hurricane Sandy can vote anywhere in the state and absentee ballots are being distributed in homeless shelters as a result of a directive from New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno.

Storm victims in New Jersey can vote via the Internet but only if they have power and access to scanners or fax machines to send the ballots back by email, said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of Brennan’s Democracy Program.

Up to now, state law only permits military and overseas voters to cast ballots by email or fax. Unlike those voters, however, the storm directive doesn’t require displaced people to provide a paper backup to prevent vote fraud.

Penny Venitis, a Rutgers University law professor, called it “critical to have a paper backup.”

Internet voting is “inherently insecure” and “email voting is the most insecure form of Internet voting,” said Andrew Appel, a computer science professor at Princeton University who joined Venitis and two other election experts on a conference call with reporters. New York has no plans to follow New Jersey’s lead.

While 250,000 of the 1 million New York voters hit hard by the storm will have to change polling stations, Doug Kellner, the New York State Board of Elections co-chairman, said that shifting to email wouldn’t be fair to voters “who are not on the right side of the digital line and would not have backup electricity to run a printer” so that they could print and mark the ballot.

In Florida, meanwhile, Miami-Dade Elections Supervisor Penelope Townsley stood before about a dozen television cameras to reassure the public that Election Day would go smoothly.

“I’d like the voters of Miami-Dade County to be confident that we are prepared," she said.

Patricia Mazzei of the Miami Herald contributed.

Email: tpugh@mcclatchydc.com, ggordon@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @TonyPughDC, @greggordon2

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