Getting ready for ballot battles in Ohio

Reporters explore 'nightmare scenarios'—and offer some practical advice to voters

OHIO — No disrespect to other swing states, but the pivotal one on the majority of pundits’ lips and in the presidential candidates’ eyes in the waning days of the election is the Buckeye State.

President Obama will stop in Ohio every day until the election, followed closely by Mitt Romney and company. For Ohioans, it’s like the movie Groundhog Day. Even The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart spent the first six minutes of Thursday’s show spoofing Ohio as “Swing State Hell.”

Just check out the interactive electoral map of your choice and you’ll see why—the path to victory for either candidate without Ohio’s 18 electoral votes is slim (and even slimmer for Romney). And while the latest polls give Obama a small but persistent edge here as in many other battleground states, a razor-close finish, with the presidency hanging in the balance, is not out of the question.

That means Ohio media outlets have an important watchdog role in monitoring the integrity of the electoral system, spotlighting potential problems, and helping to ensure that every vote gets counted.

And reporters here appear to be focused on that challenge and working to meet it. In recent days, the state’s leading newspapers have all reported on various potential electoral controversies, and many have zeroed in on what is likely to be one of the most critical concerns for both camps—the counting of provisional and absentee ballots.

An Oct. 25 Cincinnati Enquirer article seized on that subject to spin out a Florida-in-2000 storyline under the headline, “Ohio’s nightmare voting scenario.” The article, by Barry M. Horstman, explains that voters who request an absentee ballot but don’t use it will be required to fill out a provisional ballot on Election Day. Because of changes to the state voting process, it’s possible many more voters will fall into that category this year. And because provisional ballots don’t have to be counted until Nov. 17, that might delay the election result if the contest is close enough.

It’s thought-provoking, anxiety-inducing stuff. But the article waits too long—until the 24th paragraph—to explain the problems provisional ballots have created in the past:

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 poll workers. Four years ago, nearly 40,000 provisionals—roughly one in five—were invalidated for various reasons.

To drive the point home, the article is accompanied by a short video narrated by Horstman that urges voters to take care when filing an absentee ballot and highlights some of the minor but common reasons why provisional ballots are tossed out. Days later, the Enquirer’s Politics Extra blog posted another Horstman video that covered similar ground: “The slightest misstep could disqualify your ballot…” he urges viewers. “You don’t want to be an anecdote of somebody whose vote doesn’t count.” It’s a nice bit of public service that could directly help a few more voters make sure their ballots get counted.

Less than a week later, on Oct. 30, it was The Plain Dealer of Cleveland’s turn to cover this ground. An article by Harlan Spector opened with the cliffhanger scenario: “As the presidential race narrows in Ohio, The Buckeye State runs the risk of preventing the United States from calling a winner for days after the Nov. 6 election.”

Spector’s piece eventually goes on to push back against concerns about a spike in provisional ballots—local elections officials tell him that registration lists have been cleaned up, so there may actually be fewer such ballots cast than in 2008. (More on that below.) Either way, Spector’s story includes two useful boxes, one advising readers how to avoid a provisional ballot and the other describing how to vote successfully by absentee.

A day later, Darrel Rowland of The Columbus Dispatch upped the ante, declaring in his lede that if it all comes down to Ohio, “America might not know its next president until December.”

How could that happen? If, after the provisional and absentee ballots are counted and the results made official, it’s close enough for a recount. And then, the lawyers get involved.

That’s unlikely, as Rowland’s piece eventually acknowledges. But if it does, the head of the state association of election officials tells him, “things will get ugly.” The official adds: “If it all comes down to Ohio, the nation will expect us to have a perfect election, and that simply isn’t going to happen. We can have a good election, or even a great election, but it won’t be 100 percent perfect.”

The Dayton Daily News’s Jackie Borchardt took a more measured approach in a Thursday story that led with Secretary of State Jon Husted’s prediction that the outcome of the presidential race will be known the day after the election. That will depend on how close the vote is, but also on how many provisional ballots are cast—and Husted makes his case that a cleaning up of the voter rolls “has qualified tens of thousands of voters to vote a regular ballot.” (It has also come with at least small glitches, The Plain Dealer’s Joe Guillen reported Tuesday.)

Of course, the press isn’t the only watchdog here—both parties are preparing to dispatch droves of “observers” to the polls on Election Day, many of whom are lawyers. Reporters here are experienced in covering litigation over the ballot box—the legal contest over early voting played out for months—and The Plain Dealer’s Sabrina Eaton took a look at the preparations of election lawyers in a report Wednesday.

Some of the most interesting material in Eaton’s story was actually about what the state’s lawyers are doing:

The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s office is also lawyering up for Election Day. A spokeswoman said eight of its lawyers and four of its investigators would be assigned to handle election-related matters in Cuyahoga County, and that one of its lawyers would be in Columbus.

David Lambert, who heads the civil division of the prosecutor’s office, said the office will try to ensure that polls open on time to avoid complaints from advocacy groups that insist that the polls stay open late to compensate for significant opening delays.

The office is also working to educate poll workers on the mechanics of provisional voting, voter ID laws, and bilingual balloting. Lambert says 45 observers from the Department of Justice will be on hand to monitor the county’s compliance with civil rights laws.

In the past, the county has had issues like long lines or polling places running out of ballots that have led to claims that voters’ rights were breached.

“What they do in that case is to ask a federal judge to order one or more precincts to stay open,” said Lambert. “We try to limit the reach of that unless it really is a critical failure, which has never really happened.”

Avoiding “critical failure” is good, of course. But as one official told the Dispatch, this is not going to be a perfect election. Just how imperfect it may be remains to be seen, but for Ohio, and the nation, the results could mean everything. That makes it more important than ever for all of these observers—especially those in the Ohio press—to keep close watch on the workings of the electoral machinery, and help protect every citizen’s right to vote.

Note: Absentee and provisional ballots aren’t the only issue to keep an eye on, of course—The Plain Dealer’s Brandon Blackwell reports Friday night that nine polling stations in Cuyahoga County are still without power in Sandy’s wake, and more than a dozen others couldn’t be reached by phone. Election officials say power should be back on by Monday night, Tuesday’s voting won’t be affected—but talk of portable generators and flashlight supplies at polling stations doesn’t entirely inspire confidence that all will go smoothly. This is a story worth watching.

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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.