Election Day worries in Ohio

Lawsuits, provisional ballots, alleged software glitches—and the coverage of it all

OHIO — The fun never stops here in Battleground Ohio.

Just when reporters thought they had seen the last of the presidential candidates, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and Vice President Joe Biden couldn’t resist one last stop in Cleveland on Election Day. Counting candidates and wives, there have been more than 90 Buckeye State stops scheduled this year.

But today is about the vote—and, unfortunately, voting confusion and concerns.

Late Monday came news of a federal lawsuit—filed by political gadfly Bob Fitrakis, a Green Party candidate for Congress— alleging that unsupervised workers could manipulate votes in the software of voting machines used in Ohio and produced by a Nebraska company.

Cleveland’s Plain Dealer localized the story and helped clarify it by grabbing input from Cuyahoga County’s Board of Election chief, Jane Platten. Platten told the PD that the software “doesn’t actually count the votes, it helps quickly tabulate reports that are loaded onto data sticks and taken to a separate computer used to send the information to the Ohio Secretary of State’s office.”

The whole thing was short lived. After an emergency hearing, a federal judge tossed the lawsuit—and for coverage of that part of the story, Ohio news outlets largely relied on the AP.

That leaves one other pending, and potentially more significant federal lawsuit, filed in response to a late Friday directive from Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted that could cause a significant number of provisional ballots—which have a href=http://www.businessweek.com/news/2012-11-05/presidential-election-seen-spurring-new-wave-of-lawsuitsalready been dubbed the “hanging chads” of 2012—to be discounted.

Husted’s directive stipulated that voters, not poll workers, are responsible for correctly recording the ID they provide when casting a provisional ballot—which means that if the information isn’t recorded properly, the ballots may be discarded. The move started attracting national attention late last Friday, first from left-leaning outlets like Think Progress and The Nation and then in longer posts from The Atlantic’s website and Buzzfeed.

Though Ohio’s reporters have closely followed the provisional ballot story for the past couple weeks, the state’s press covered the essentials of this issue in brief stories
over the weekend
(The Blade of Toledo offered more detail than most).

The PD’s Joe Guillen followed up Monday, offering a solid explanation of provisional ballots and their potential pitfalls.

It goes without saying that reporters should stay on this story—and they certainly will if the vote is close nationally, and Ohio and its provisional ballots become crucial to the outcome. There’s a potential for a very large mess here.

Finally, to their credit, on Tuesday the websites of Ohio’s major newspapers have been crowdsourcing reports of voting problems, to one degree or another—including The Plain Dealer, The Columbus Dispatch, Dayton Daily News, and the Cincinnati Enquirer (see also here). Akron’s Beacon Journal is scrolling tweets on its homepage with the #ohvote tag.

And The Columbus Dispatch’s Darrel Rowland had a solid story Tuesday morning about a decision by the Franklin County Board of Elections to reject an application by True the Vote, a Texas-based group, that intended to dispatch observers in predominately African American neighborhood polling spots. From Rowland’s account:

One person told the elections board that she attended True the Vote training sessions and the observers were instructed to use cameras to intimidate voters when they enter the polling place, record their names on tablet computers and send them to a central location, and attempt to stop questionably qualified voters before they could get to a voting machine.

“You’re going to have problems galore,” she warned.

And as for those last-minute candidates’ visits to Cleveland>? The Plain Dealer opted for coverage by the Associated Press.

No surprise, really, and no shame in that. The big story at this point is the vote—how it’s conducted, and what the results are (on that front, the PD offers a nifty interactive county-level map linked to Steve Koff’s Monday piece on what to look for in the election returns).

There’s a long night, and maybe longer, ahead. The press corps, like the candidates, are no doubt weary. (In one interview recently a reporter quipped, “Make it stop.”)

But now is no time to lose focus—and based on most of what I’ve seen from the Ohio political press this past year, I would be surprised if that happened.

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T.C. Brown covered government and politics in the Ohio Statehouse Bureau for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland for more than 17 years, and he has also written for other local, state and national publications. Brown is a founding partner in Webface, a social media communication company.