Mr. Blackwell's Designs

Hundreds of voters mysteriously “dropped or displaced” from registration rolls when master lists were electronically merged. Absentee ballots invalidated because voters didn't receive a flier telling them not to remove a security stub. Poll workers who didn't show up to work on Election Day. Polling places unable to open on time because computer memory cards for new machines hadn't been installed. Suspicious shortages of machines in precincts that happened to be heavily Democratic. Voters who left the polls in disgust without having cast a ballot, because they just couldn't wait for overwhelmed precinct workers to sort through a monstrous mess of administrative and equipment problems.

Ohio, 2004? Nope. Ohio, 2006.

It took Cuyahoga County officials six days after the May 2 primary to come up with a tally of results. The Election Day chaos in Ohio's most populated jurisdiction -- and a heavily Democratic one -- has been the subject of scathing official inquiries that found irregularities on such a grand scale they might make even Katherine Harris blush. Could this be a preview of November's midterm elections?

Perhaps. Except the sequel might be worse.

* * *

Ohio is again the epicenter of anxiety about whether partisan malevolence combined with plain old incompetence will result in hundreds, if not thousands, of voters who are unable to cast their ballots or have them properly counted. Confronted with national controversy over the way it administered the 2004 presidential election, with allegations of vote suppression and partisan skullduggery on the part of Republican elections officials, Ohio's Republican state government took action: The legislature wrote a draconian election “reform” law that only Jim Crow could love. The embattled governor, Bob Taft, signed it into law. Now it is up to J. Kenneth Blackwell, the transparently partisan secretary of state -- and current Republican candidate for governor -- to administer it.

At its core, the law raises new hurdles for registering and voting in Ohio. It went so far as to mandate felony prosecutions against individuals who ran afoul of restrictive new procedures for registering voters -- regulations that Blackwell interpreted as requiring an individual who registers a new voter to turn in the form personally. The rule was making it all but impossible to conduct registration drives as they traditionally are carried out by churches, interest groups, and good-government organizations. When a federal judge in Cleveland threw out the registration rules on September 1, Blackwell's office retreated and announced it wouldn't appeal.

But the registration controversy may be only the prelude to a chaotic Election Day that is likely to test the most determined voters and dedicated poll workers. Electronic voting machines are to be used statewide for the first time in a major election in which turnout is expected to nudge up, driven by the marquee race for governor between Blackwell and Democrat Ted Strickland, as well as the nip-and-tuck U.S. Senate contest between incumbent Republican Mike DeWine and Democrat Sherrod Brown [see Jim McNeill, “The Test Case Race”].

The good news is that the old punch-card machines shown to be inaccurate in 2004 are gone. The bad news is that no one knows how many counties will repeat the disastrous experience of Cuyahoga County, where shaky computerized voting machines and poorly trained workers contributed to the electoral meltdown. A bipartisan review panel issued a blistering, 400-page report on the primary that found fault at every level. More recently, the county's board of commissioners received the results of a study it ordered from the San Francisco–based Election Science Institute. The conclusion: “The election system, in its entirety, exhibits shortcomings with extremely serious consequences, especially in the event of a close election.”

It's impossible to tell how the vagaries of computerized voting will play out statewide, though many experts are optimistic about improved accuracy in the count. The untoward consequences of new constraints on voters that legislators wrote into Ohio election law are easier to predict. The panoply of new rules and restrictions “are likely to prove a real headache for election officials, poll workers and voters alike,” says Daniel Tokaji, an election-law expert at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law.

For the first time, voters must show identification at the polls -- a photo ID such as a driver's license, or documents such as utility bills and bank statements. Confusion has persisted over whether the address on photo identification must be current, so that anyone who has moved and updated a voter registration -- but not the address on a driver's license -- might not pass muster.

The Legislature abandoned the current-address requirement for driver's licenses at the last moment, Tokaji told me in an interview. But in June, Blackwell issued a contradictory directive to county boards of elections, indicating that a current address was required. When voting-rights groups cried foul -- about 1.2 million Ohioans drive with licenses listing former addresses, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer -- Blackwell issued a clarifying e-mail to the counties. His office also is running public-service announcements that make the address regulation clear, Blackwell's spokesman says.

Still, many qualified voters -- students or elderly and disabled patients in nursing homes, for example -- neither have Ohio licenses nor access to utility bills or other required documents. For good measure, the Legislature decreed, and Blackwell's Web site states, that “you cannot use as proof of identification a notice that the board of elections mailed to you.”

“It's quite possible that a lot of people who would have been allowed to cast regular ballots in past elections will now be forced into the provisional ballot pathway,” Tokaji predicts. If past elections are an indicator of future results, this can be a path to partisan gamesmanship.

* * *

In 2004, Blackwell insisted that provisional ballots wouldn't be given to voters who went to the wrong precinct, and that only those cast in the correct precinct would be counted. The Legislature has now written the rule into law.

Ohio threw out 23 percent of provisional ballots cast in the presidential election, a good record compared with other states. Still, a Democratic National Committee study found that at least in Cleveland and its suburbs, voters who cast provisional ballots for Republican George W. Bush in 2004 were more likely have their votes counted than those who chose Democrat John Kerry.

Besides failure to meet the identification requirements, hundreds of voters could be forced to cast provisional ballots if their names do not appear on the state's master registration list, a computer-scrubbed update meant to clean the rolls of illegitimate names, as well as add new registrants. One Ohioan who already knows that her name fails to appear on the list is Jennifer Brunner -- the Democrat now running for Blackwell's job.

Brunner, a former Franklin County judge, told me in an interview that the search for her own name on the state's roll turned up nothing: “I put in mine, my husband's, one of my campaign worker's -- and we didn't come up in that database,” she said. Thinking the source of the problem might have been with her county government, Brunner then entered the name of her sister-in-law, who lives in a different county. “She didn't come up either,” Brunner said.

For the lucky voter who manages to navigate the administrative obstacles on the way to the voting booth, there is always the possibility of a challenge. The Legislature changed the notorious state law that in 2004 allowed Republicans to bring hundreds of lawyers to Ohio to challenge voters at the polls. Now only poll workers -- partisans, to be sure, but divided evenly among the two parties -- can mount such a contest. But during the rewrite, the Legislature added a pernicious twist: It revised the rules on challenging a voter's citizenship to force naturalized citizens (but not the native-born) to produce a document proving their citizenship. This blueprint for discrimination against Hispanics, Asians, and others with dark skin or a foreign accent is now under legal challenge.

* * *

If contention, confusion, and the possibility for chaos endure in Ohio, so does the state's potential for determining the direction of the nation. The DeWine Senate seat and at least three Republican-held House districts are among those seriously at risk for GOP losses. If Ohio votes out Republicans, there's a good chance it will help vote in a Congress with at least one chamber controlled by Democrats.

But here, too, the state's majority lawmakers sought to ensure that in close contests marred by controversial procedures, the chads will fall their way: The new law quintuples the cost of a recount. Worse, it bars anyone from contesting the official outcome of a federal election, congressional elections included. Election reform in Ohio has become just one more way to say let the voters be damned.

Marie Cocco is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers' Group.

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