More than one million residents of Ohio intend to vote in next week’s presidential election via absentee ballot, an unprecedented number that will likely result in historic voter turnout in the battleground state, according to Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner.
Brunner said she expects more than six million Ohioans to vote on Nov. 4, about 80 percent, and absentee ballots are expected to represent one-third of total voter turnout. Thus far, absentee ballots represent about 22.5 percent of voters.
She said the campaign between Senators Barack Obama and John McCain is the first presidential election “where any voter can request an absentee ballot without a reason, a process commonly referred to as “no fault” absentee voting.”
Voting by absentee ballot is seen as a way of ensuring votes are counted, although there are numerous cases where absentee ballots have disappeared or were purged.
Mark Crispin Miller, a professor at New York University, and one of country’s foremost experts on election integrity issues, said the trend toward absentee ballots “is good news” because it suggests that millions of Americans now know that voting by machine is risky business.”
Voters “asked for absentee ballots because they want their votes to count, believing that such ballots represent an option more secure than voting electronically,” said Miller, the author of several books on election integrity, including a study on the 2004 election which detailed the voting irregularities in Ohio that led to Bush’s reelection.
In 2004, Republican-controlled Ohio was one state where voters complained that their votes cast on electronic voting machines for Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, were recorded for Bush and exit polls that favored Kerry somehow benefited Bush in terms of votes. The issue has been the focus of a House Judiciary Committee report, numerous independent media studies, books, and documentaries, including the recent film Free For All, directed by John Wellington Ennis.
Still, Miller said voting by absentee ballot does not necessarily mean your vote will be counted.
“Unfortunately, absentee ballots do not, in themselves, ensure the counting of those votes,” Miller said. “Such ballots are, moreover, often counted last–sometimes after the fact–or not at all. Their fate depends entirely on the probity of the officials running the election; and in Ohio many of those people are less interested in fair elections than in helping out the GOP.
“Two years ago, the partisan election boards in 55 of Ohio’s 88 counties actually destroyed all or part of their stored ballots from the prior presidential race, notwithstanding a court order that those documents all be preserved. They clearly did so as a way to shred the evidence of vast election fraud in the 2004 election.”
Wisconsin is another battleground state that is expecting a record number of voters to use absentee ballots. State election officials said absentee ballots will likely represent 15 percent of total voter turnout, compared with 12 percent in 2004.
But it’s Ohio that is shaping up to be a crucial battleground state in the presidential election. More than 660,000 Ohioans have registered to vote. But GOP lawmakers and Republican Party operatives are mounting challenges to at least 200,000 of the newly registered voters, most of which are expected to vote for Democrat Barack Obama. Republicans claim some information on their voter registration forms don’t square with information in government databases, such as social security numbers and birthdates.
Boehner and other GOP lawmakers and party officials said voters with questionable voter registration forms should cast provisional ballots, which are often thrown out after the voter leaves the polling place.
The Ohio Republican Party filed a lawsuit last month against Brunner, a Democrat, but the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the case. The justices said lawsuits “brought by a private litigant” could not be used to force states to abide by federal laws.
Last week, The Public Record reported that Congressman John Boehner, R-Ohio, asked President George W. Bush to intervene in the matter and order the Department of Justice to force Brunner to adhere to a provision in the 2002 federal law known as the Help America Vote Act to verify the eligibility of voters.
“Unless action is taken by the [Justice] Department immediately, thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands of names whose information has not been verified through the [Help America Vote Act] procedures mandated by Congress will remain on the voter rolls during the Nov. 4 election. …
“There is a significant risk if not a certainty, that unlawful votes will be cast and counted. Given the Election Day is less than two weeks away, immediate action by the Department is not only warranted, but also crucial,” Boehner said in a letter to Bush.
Bush passed Boehner’s request to Attorney General Michael Mukasey and asked him to investigate.
It is unknown whether the Department of Justice will act on Bush’s request. Federal intervention – if ordered by Mukasey – could wreak havoc at polling places across Ohio, with Republican operatives using data on mismatches to challenge thousands of voters and causing long lines in Democratic strongholds.
Federal investigative guidelines, however, discourage election-related probes before ballots are cast because of the likelihood that the inquiries will become politicized and might influence the election outcomes.
“In most cases, voters should not be interviewed, or other voter-related investigation done, until after the election is over,” according to the Justice Department’s guidelines for election offenses.
Ohio’s 20 electoral votes could be crucial for McCain to achieve a comeback victory over his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, who is leading in Ohio by five to seven percentage points, according to most polls.
Republican success in disqualifying large numbers of new voters – while creating long lines in Democratic precincts – could tip Ohio into McCain’s column on Election Night.
Miller, the NYU professor and election integrity expert, said it’s all but certain that Ohio will “be the site of litigation by the GOP, so as to nullify a lot of Democratic votes.”
“At the moment there are actually no fewer than nine lawsuits, all of them brought by the Republicans,” Miller said.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and five congressional lawmakers, urged Mukasey not to intervene in Ohio’s voter registration dispute where Republicans have challenged the integrity of the 200,000 new voter registration forms.
“The eyes of the nation are once again on Ohio in the Nov. 4 election in this critical election,” Brown and the congressional Democrats said in a letter sent to Mukasey last week. “We have confidence in the work that is being done by Ohio’s bipartisan group of election officials and by Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner. We respectfully request that you refrain from taking any action absent more compelling evidence than partisan political requests.
“According to testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last year, Republican members of Congress exerted pressure on the Justice Department two years ago to bring an indictment in a public corruption case against Democratic officials before the November election so as to influence its outcome. To his credit, the U.S. Attorney in question resisted this pressure. You should do no less.”
Boehner said Ohio elections officials have already begun to purge absentee ballots where information does not match up with information stored in government databases. Boehner said this is a clear-cut case of “voter fraud.”
“Franklin County officials yesterday tossed out a dozen fraudulently cast absentee ballots, and the Hamilton County prosecutor has appointed an independent counsel to investigate more than 200 ballots on which the name or address does not match to state records,” Boehner said in a statement posted on his website. “Prosecutor Joe Deters has asked that at least the questionable ballots remain in their identifying envelopes until voter registration information can be confirmed. “
Independent studies have shown that phony registrations rarely result in illegally cast ballots because there are so many other safeguards built into the system.
For instance, from October 2002 to September 2005, a total of 70 people were convicted for federal election related crimes, according to figures compiled by the New York Times last year. Only 18 of those were for ineligible voting. In recent years, federal prosecutors reached similar conclusions despite pressure from the Bush administration to lodge “election fraud” charges against voter registration groups seen as bringing more Democratic voters into the democratic process.