Ballot rulings make election ripe for lengthy confusion

Published 5:00 am Monday, October 25, 2004

Remember hanging chads, pregnant chads, swinging chads and alltheir kin?

The bits of paper – the remnants of incorrectly cast punch-cardballots – were the bane of the last presidential election duringrecount upon recount in Florida and other states.

Those chads are so 2000.

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Welcome to 2004, the year – and the election – of theprovisional ballot.

These ballots, required by the 2002 federal Help America VoteAct, are used when a would-be voter’s name does not appear on thelist of registered voters in a precinct. The voter is allowed tocast his or her vote, and election officials determine the voter’seligibility and whether to count the vote after all other ballotshave been cast and counted.

But with just more than two weeks to go before the Nov. 2election, there is no national consensus on which provisionalballots will – or must – be counted.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled last week that under state lawonly those ballots cast in the proper precinct may be counted.

It seems ridiculous this would even be in doubt, that anyonewould think he or she could show up at any polling place anywhereand cast a valid ballot. The Florida court is on the righttrack.

But try explaining that bit of common sense to courts in Ohioand Michigan.

An Ohio federal judge recently blocked an order of the secretaryof state requiring poll workers to redirect voters to the correctprecinct, ruling instead that provisional votes must be counted aslong as they are cast in the county where the voter isregistered.

A federal appeals court ruled Saturday that provisional ballotsOhio voters cast outside their own precincts should not be counted,throwing out a lower-court decision that said such ballots arevalid as long as they are cast in the correct county.

A federal judge in Michigan,however, has taken much the sametack that Ohio originally proposed, telling the state it must countprovisional ballots as long as they are cast in the right city ortownship.

To complicate matters – as if that were necessary – under Ohiolaw, provisional ballots are not counted until 10 days after theelection. So while the number of provisional ballots cast in thiskey swing state will be known on election night, the winner of thestate – and possibly of the presidency – may not be.

The situation is ripe for election-night confusion and theconfusion will be fodder for post-election lawsuits. With theDemocrats already having 10,000 lawyers at the ready and theRepublicans ready to counter them, no one should be surprised ifthis year’s electoral process drags on ad infinitum.

Unfortunately for us all, it seems inevitable that theprovisional ballot will be the hanging chad of the 2004presidential election.