Federal Court Orders Ohio To Reverse Crazy Provisional Ballot Rules
A federal court has ordered the state of Ohio to suspend one of its most maddening election rules, which disqualified 40,000 provisional ballots in the 2008 presidential election after they were turned in at the wrong table in polling places, or the ballot envelope was not properly sealed.
The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Algenon Marbley, which will likely be appealed by the state, concerns provisonal ballots. These ballots are given to any voter who is not on the polling place’s voter list but claims, under a penalty of perjury, that they are a registered voter. In most states, county officials verify a provisional voter’s credentials after Election Day, and either add (or do not add) their vote to the official totals.
In recent presidential elections in Ohio, the secretary of state has issued rules that would disqualify provisonal ballots turned in at the wrong precinct table in a poll—described as the ‘right church, wrong pew’ problem. Many counties have multiple precincts voting in one location, a practice designed to save money and streamline election administration.
In 2004, more than 4,000 provisional ballots were rejected and not counted because they were turned in at the wrong table—mostly in the Cincinnati area. A number also were not counted because the voter did not properly sign and seal the envelope with the ballot. In 2008 across Ohio, 40,000 provisional ballots were disqualified due to these and other factors.
Judge Marbley’s decision will likely be appealed, but it relies on a view that voting rights and voters’ intentions should be given the benefit of the doubt—so they can participate in elections—as opposed to disqualifying their votes over narrow bureaucratic techicalities.
The decision is significant because of the scale of the ballots involved. Although Ohio has more than 5 million registered voters, in 2004 George W. Bush won the presidency there by a margin of 118,775 votes. In other words, 2012’s provisional ballot count—based on the number rejected in 2008—could play a big role if the vote is close.