In 2004, 9 votes per precinct pushed George W. Bush ahead of John Kerry in Ohio. But thousands are thrown out each election, according to a new report by the Cincinnati Enquirer.
The battleground state, which has predicted the winner of every presidential election since 1944 except Nixon vs. Kennedy in 1960, often comes down to a tiny margin of votes. In 1976, Ohio tipped the election to Jimmy Carter by only 11,116 votes out of nearly 4.1 million.
The Enquirer found the state tosses thousands of ballots every election due to bureaucratic confusion, clerical error and other factors. Urban counties are particularly vulnerable, such as Hamilton County, which contains Cincinnati:
In Hamilton County alone, hundreds of votes are routinely disqualified in major statewide elections because they are cast in the wrong precinct, often only feet from the correct location. Hundreds more votes have been tossed out for another relatively minor miscue: voters’ failure to seal an inner envelope containing their absentee ballot.
Provisional ballots, which a voter can cast if there is uncertainty over their registration, are much more common in Ohio than in any other state besides California. This can happen if a voter moved without changing registration or if the rolls show a typo in their name or address. In the 2008 presidential election, nearly 40,000 out of 207,000 provisional ballots cast were rejected. Urban counties hold the bulk of these provisional ballots:
Most of Ohio’s provisional votes are cast in five large urban counties: Hamilton, Cuyahoga (Cleveland), Franklin (Columbus), Montgomery (Dayton) and Summit (Akron). In November 2010, they produced 54,470, or 52 percent, of Ohio’s 105,195 provisional votes, and an even higher percentage of those that were discarded – 57 percent (6,748) of 11,772.
Smaller races are equally dysfunctional; the outcome of a Hamilton County judicial race in 2010 was delayed for 18 months due to lawsuits over votes that were rejected partly because poll workers could not find addresses or distinguish between even and odd numbers.
Over the years, Ohio has been hit with many lawsuits over voting procedures, most recently by the Department of Justice over the Legislature’s attempt to restrict early voting, a measure enacted after 2004, when Ohio’s polls were clogged with seven-hour lines on Election Day. The state is attempting to limit the early voting deadline for most Ohioans, the remnant of House Bill 194, which was repealed after outcry over provisions that killed early voting on the last weekend before an election and cut the requirement that poll workers direct voters to their proper precinct.
Since 2008, all 88 counties in the state have been working to improve the chaotic election system, preparing administration plans for November addressing the poll worker training and correct ballot filing procedures. However, the report concludes, “Unless voters take a more proactive approach about how and precisely where to vote, poll workers improve their performance over past elections or courts order new changes before Election Day, tens of thousands of ballots are likely to be disqualified.”