A new Ohio program intended to make
voting easier has the potential to keep the presidential election in
doubt until late November if the national outcome hinges on the state's
18 electoral votes.
Under Secretary of State Jon Husted's
initiative to send absentee ballot applications to nearly 7 million
registered voters across Ohio, more than 800,000 people so far have
asked for but not yet completed an absentee ballot for the Nov. 6
Anyone who does not return an absentee ballot, deciding
instead to vote at the polls, will be required to cast a provisional
ballot. That's so officials may verify that they did not vote absentee
and also show up at the polls.
By state law, provisional ballots
may not be counted until at least Nov. 17. That means that if Ohio's
electoral votes would be decisive in the race between President Obama
and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the state could keep the
nation in suspense for weeks after the election.
"That would be called my nightmare scenario," said Amy Searcy, director of the Hamilton County Board of Elections.
it is also, election experts warn, a distinctly possible scenario if
the vote in Ohio - and nationwide - is close. "We could easily see a
situation in which the nation has to wait for Ohio because of
provisionals," said Ed Foley, an Ohio State University law professor and
expert on election law. "We ought to start thinking about those what-if
scenarios now rather than the Wednesday morning after the election."
Oct. 19, about 1.43 million Ohioans had requested an absentee ballot,
but only 618,861 had returned their vote by mail, according to Husted's
office. Both numbers will grow by Nov. 3, the deadline for most Ohioans
to request an absentee ballot.
And nearly 190,000 people had cast
absentee ballots in person at their county boards of elections or
designated early voting centers in Ohio's 88 counties. Many of the
800,000-plus voters who have not yet mailed back their completed
absentee ballot likely plan to wait until closer to Election Day to do
A wide gap between requested and returned ballots, however,
raises the possibility that many who opt to go to their precinct on Nov.
6 will be forced to vote provisionally.
The circumstances that
typically produce provisional ballots - cast when a voter's eligibility
is in question, often after someone has moved or changed their name
without updating their registration - also can be expected next month.
Four years ago, nearly 207,000 provisional votes were cast statewide.
"normal" provisional votes and ones stemming from unused absentee
ballots could push that overall number higher this year. In addition,
another potentially sizable chunk of ballots also will be uncounted on
election night: absentees postmarked by Nov. 5 and that reach election
boards within the 10 post-election days allowed.
of thousands of votes effectively on hold would keep the presidential
election in limbo if Ohio's electoral votes are needed for either Obama
or Romney to reach the 270-vote majority required.
"I really hope
that doesn't happen - but it could," said Tim Burke, chairman of the
Hamilton County Democratic Party and the county board of elections. "And
we know that provisional votes can change an election."
staffers and other officials say, based on recent elections, they expect
the number of unused absentee ballots to shrink substantially by
Election Day. In the 2008 presidential election, 1.81 million absentee
ballots were requested and 1.74 million - a gap of only about 70,000 -
But there is one significant difference this year. In
past elections, most Ohioans had to proactively request an absentee
ballot. This year, Husted simplified the process by sending an
application to registered voters statewide. An unintended consequence of
that could be to increase the number of people who ask for an absentee
ballot but do not use it, not realizing that means they must vote
provisionally at the polls.
Provisional votes long have been one
of the most problematic areas of Ohio elections, primarily because tens
of thousands routinely are disqualified by relatively minor missteps by
voters or polls workers. Four years ago, nearly 40,000 provisionals -
roughly one in five - were invalidated for various reasons.