Pollsters and pundits have trained their eyes on Ohio, where President Obama maintains a narrow lead over Mitt Romney just days before the election. According to exit polls, Obama’s lead is even stronger among early voters. But several recent developments threaten to disenfranchise many of these voters and plunge Ohio into a bureaucratic nightmare on election night.
The Columbus Dispatch reported on Thursday that a data-sharing glitch and mistakes by election officials have caused thousands of absentee ballot requests to be rejected. While Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted maintains that this was a computer error, the Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates found an abnormally high rate of rejected absentee ballot requests in Cuyahoga County, a Democratic stronghold that includes Cleveland. The Cuyahoga Board of Elections determined that 865 ballot requests had been erroneously thrown out. Though Cuyahoga sent notices to all affected voters, residents in other counties may not be aware and stand to be disenfranchised.
If these voters try to cast their vote in person, they will likely be forced to use a provisional ballot, as the absentee ballot error has thrown their registration status into question. At least 4,500 registered voters across the state will be left waiting for their absentee ballots, while as many as 6,000 provisional ballots cast by registered voters could be tossed out. The provisional ballots that do not get thrown out won’t be counted until November 17, according to state law, further dragging out the confusion.
This absentee ballot fiasco is just the latest in Ohio’s dysfunctional election saga. On Wednesday, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals allowed Husted to discount ballots cast by people directed to the wrong polling station by a pollworker — one of the most common errors that led to thousands of votes getting thrown out in Ohio’s dysfunctional 2004 presidential election.
Husted became a national symbol of voter suppression after he banned early voting on nights and weekends, and attempted to defy a court order that restored early voting on the last three days before the election.
In his defense, Husted often touts his unprecedented initiative to mail absentee ballot requests to every registered voter in the state. But critics have pointed out that this measure will probably add to the confusion that could delay the results of the election. Anyone who chooses to return the absentee ballot application but later decides to vote in person will be required to use a provisional ballot, as election officials need to verify that they did not also send in their absentee ballot. The absentee ballot initiative, then, could be a bureaucratic nightmare in disguise. With innumerable legitimate votes cast on provisional ballots, Ohio’s 2012 election could end up mirroring 2004, when the state discarded thousands of votes and tipped George W. Bush over the edge to victory by the narrowest margin.