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Record Turnout Expected in Ohio Primary

Despite bad weather, early voting suggests numbers will be at general election levels.
 
 
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Turnout in Ohio's 2008 primary on Tuesday, March 4, is almost certain to set a record and could approach what is normally seen in a fall general election, according to a spokesman for the Franklin County Board of Elections.

By early evening Monday, the number of early voters in Franklin County, Ohio, where Columbus, the state capital, is located, included 80,000 absentee ballots and nearly 5,000 people who came to the board of election office in Columbus to cast ballots, said Ben Piscatelli, spokesman for the Franklin County BOE.

In the November 2006 election, the county had 93,000 absentee ballots.

"It is approaching that," he said. "It is like a general election."

Despite predictions of bad weather for primary day, supporters of both Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., appeared determined to vote for their presidential candidate. At the BOE office in downtown Columbus, volunteers handing out literature for both candidates said they did not see many people leaving despite two-hour waits to vote on Friday. Apparently there were longer waits this past Saturday, prompting the BOE to extend early voting hours until 9 p.m. on Monday.

"The line is getting congested, but the majority of people are staying," said Ron Dye Brown, an Obama volunteer from Columbus. "There are some people who are getting frustrated. But they are staying. They are serious about this. This is going down in history."

"There are polls that show Hillary is slightly ahead," said Joshua Stevens, a Clinton volunteer from Columbus, "but polls mean nothing unless people get out and vote. I'll be doing Hillary rides to the polls tomorrow, helping people to vote."

The campaign volunteers, which included former New York City firemen supporting Clinton, said people knew the primary vote could determine the next Democratic nominee. Voters interviewed in line echoed that sentiment.

While polls suggested the Obama was ahead in Texas, the other large state voting on Tuesday, Clinton's lead in Ohio has been shrinking in recent weeks and days. Several people who voted early said they remember the frustrations of the 2004 presidential election, where long lines disenfranchised many Democratic voters. They were determined their vote would count this time around.

The early turnout in Franklin County was mirrored in other Ohio counties, election officials said.

Franklin County election officials and Ohio's Democratic secretary of state, Jennifer Brunner, also were determined not to repeat mistakes from the past, BOE spokesman Piscatelli said. The county has 780,000 voters and uses paperless voting machines, but people can ask to use a paper ballot, he said, referring to a new option created by Brunner. Franklin County ordered 110,000 paper ballots, he said. One percent of the public had specifically requested paper ballots in early voting, he said.

On the other hand, Ohio's Republican-controlled legislature passed a new voter I.D. law since the 2004 presidential election, requiring voters to present one of several forms of identification to vote. That requirement, coupled with new consolidated precinct locations and electronic voting machines that prompt people to review every item -- instead of selecting a straight party vote -- are likely to create some bottlenecks at the polls, one lawyer volunteering for the Obama campaign said.

That lawyer, who came from out-of-state to watch for voting rights abuses but did not want to give his name -- because the Obama campaign was very strict about telling volunteers not to speak to the press -- said his campaign did not appear to be well-organized if serious delays or election protection problems surfaced on Tuesday.

In contrast, in South Carolina, for instance, the Obama campaign gave voters small cards telling them how to expeditiously use the paperless, touch-screen voting machines. When that suggestion was made to Ohio campaign officials, he said the Ohio campaign replied it would not be printing similar cards for voters. Instead, the campaign would be relying on door hangings that reminded voters what ID to bring and their precinct location.

On the other hand, other Obama volunteers said they were ready for Tuesday, saying they even had plastic ponchos to give to people who might get caught in the rain while waiting in line. The campaign was giving out cups of coffee at the Franklin County BOE on Friday.

Clinton's volunteers, for their part, also said they were ready for Tuesday. "I believe our campaign is more organized than the Obama campaign," Joshua Stevens said. "A lot of the people at our headquarters are from New York, California and Washington, D.C. We've had people doing phone banking, canvassing, all kinds of stuff today."

Steven Rosenfeld is a senior fellow at Alternet.org and co-author of " What Happened in Ohio: A Documentary Record of Theft and Fraud in the 2004 Election ," with Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman (The New Press, 2006).

 
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