November 5, 2012

Ohio: The Next Florida?

Today, in bit of a departure from the canons of internet blogging, I'm going to write about a topic I actually know something about: elections. I worked six years in elections management and have seen all the good, the bad, and the ugly elections you could ever want to see. But, if you believe the article I read on NBCNews.com about four things that could screw up the counting of this year's presidential election, this could get really ugly.

Superstorm Sandy has held the nation's attention, but the still-evolving legal storm in Ohio over the counting of provisional ballots may prove to be far more damaging to the democratic process. It all began when the Ohio Secretary of State decided to issue an absentee ballot application to every registered voter in the state.

Just to back-up a second, there are actually three types of votes cast during an election. First, there are the ballots cast on Election Day, which includes in-person early voting, for those states that have it. Second, there are absentee ballots, typically for voters who will be out of town on Election Day or who may be incapacitated or otherwise unable to vote in person. Finally, there are provisional ballots. These are used when there is a question about the legitimacy of the voter or the vote being cast.

In Ohio's case, by sending every voter an absentee ballot application, an unavoidable train wreck was set  in motion. Here is the problem in a nutshell. Every voter who requests an absentee ballot will be flagged as potentially voting an absentee ballot. Some will indeed vote that absentee ballot and return it. Others won't vote at all. Some will go to the polls and try to vote there. That's when the trouble begins.

Since the deadline for voting by absentee ballot is Election Day, there is no way to know if a given voter has sent in an absentee ballot that wasn't received, thereby possibly resulting in a double vote. That's where the provisional ballot comes in. The whole idea is that the ballot is cast but the vote isn't counted until after the election, when workers review the records of votes cast on Election Day and compare them against the provisional ballots. Only when it is shown that a provisional ballot is the only ballot cast will it be counted.

Talk about time-consuming. I have been there and done that. As of this weekend, 238,678 Ohio voters who requested absentee ballots have not returned them. Any hope of a quick outcome from Ohio--which is one of a handful of states that will decide the election, nothing to get excited about folks--well, that ship may have sailed. Under Ohio law, the tabulation of provisional ballots won't even begin until Nov. 17th.

Oh, but wait. It gets better. Just last Friday, Secretary of State Husted issued an order requiring voters to fill out the identification section of the provisional ballot. Normally, this would be done by poll workers, a process required by state law. The kicker is, if the voter somehow screws it up, the provisional ballot will be tossed out. All of this is going to court, which will create confusion long after the election is over. This comes on the heels of another legal battle caused by Mr. Husted's open defiance of a court order to allow in-person early voting, something he feels is un-American.

If Mr. Husted's shenanigans throw Ohio and the election to Romney--and a lot of folks think that is what is going on here--the level of disaffection and distrust with the political process will spread even deeper into the center. Not that this is anything new for Ohio. Mr. Husted follows in the footsteps of a previous incumbent of his office, Ken Blackwell, who at one point four years ago said he would reject voter registration forms if they were not printed on 80-pound thickness cardstock. 

All of which goes to something I have maintained for years. When you want to really screw things up--whether it's malice, zeal, or stupidity--nothing beats an insider. All the election conspiracy theorists who worry about outside influences somehow disenfranchising us by monkeying with the voting machines or hordes of illegal aliens suddenly surfacing to vote on election day, they are looking in the wrong direction.

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