Courts Allow Same-Day Vote Window to Go Forward in Ohio
By Mary Pat Flaherty
A weeklong window in which Ohio residents can to register to vote and cast their ballot in person on the same day can get underway Tuesday after courts today rejected challenges to the process.
The one-stop voting, which will end Oct. 6, had become a heated partisan issue in the battleground state, with Republicans disputing a legal interpretation by Democratic Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner.
Get out the vote efforts have been mobilized to take advantage of the window, in which the new voters use absentee ballots, and lock down votes from individuals who otherwise might not register or send in the absentee forms.
The absentee ballots won't be counted until Election Day, but campaigns treasure them as votes in the bank. Voting centers located at boards of elections offices and their satellite offices will handle the one-stop voting.
Numerous drives to register college students, minorities, residents of homeless shelters and other groups during the weeklong window have been announced, prompting Ohio Republicans to argue Brunner had issued orders that would benefit her party's candidate, a contention she strongly denied.
Three courts cleared the way for same-day voting to proceed. A 4-3 ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court in Brunner's favor, and decisions by two federal judges in Cleveland and Columbus.
Sharp language spilled into the official reactions to the court decisions.
Brunner said the 4-3 Supreme Court decision "should send a message to the forces of confusion and chaos that our top goal must be protecting Ohioans' voting rights."
Ohio Republican Party Chairman Bob Bennett expressed disappointment in the rulings and said "this is a win for Jennifer Brunner's partisan efforts to aid the Democrat turnout strategy," adding, "I continue to believe public opinion is with us."
A 2005 bill in the then-Republican state legislature cleared the way for the absentee votes, but the furor over the same-day voting stemmed from a directive that Brunner issued Sept. 11 to local elections boards.
Brunner noted that in Ohio, absentee ballots must be ready for distribution 35 days before the election but the voter registration deadline is 30 days before the election. That gap creates an "overlap" period for same-day registration and absentee voting, Brunner said.
In court, Republican voters argued Brunner's interpretation was illegal and that a person must be registered for 30 days in order to receive an absentee ballot. The GOP voters also had raised a concern that allowing absentee voting before registrations were verified opened the way for fraud.
Today, courts rejected those arguments.
In addition to the state Supreme Court decision, the rulings came from U.S. District Judge James S. Gwin of the Northern District of Ohio in Cleveland. U.S. District Judge George Smith of the Southern District of Ohio in Columbus deferred to the state Supreme Court decision and did not issue a ruling of his own on the central issue.
However, one setback for Brunner came in an order from Smith that observers be permitted at polls during early voting, which Brunner had forbidden. Brunner's office said it will appeal that order.
Two separate court cases over absentee ballots still remain pending in Ohio.
Those involve absentee ballot requests filed by voters who responded to a mailer sent by the John McCain campaign. The mailer included a pre-printed form for seeking an absentee ballot and included a checkbox the voter could mark to verify he or she was a "qualified elector" before the form was returned to a local elections board.
Brunner said that if the box was not checked, the request would be rejected and voters should be sent another application by elections officials.
In the pending challenges, Republicans say the applications should be accepted because there is no law stating a box must be checked to make an application valid and that cards also contain a signature line beneath the "elector" language that makes them valid.
Ohio has been a hard fought state in presidential contests and the court cases Tuesday recall disputes in 2004 over voting procedures that drew national attention when Democrats challenged rulings by then Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, a Republican.
Posted at 8:48 PM ET on Sep 29, 2008
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