OHIO Wrong place at the right time? You can still vote

A judge blocked a directive from Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell.
TOLEDO (AP) -- Ohio Democrats won a federal court victory in their attempt to make sure voters can cast ballots even if they show up at the wrong polling place Election Day.
Democrats had feared that an order directing poll workers to send voters at the wrong place to their correct precinct could cost their party votes in a crucial presidential election swing state.
U.S. District Judge James Carr blocked the directive Thursday from Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, ruling that voters can cast ballots as long as they are in the county where they are registered.
Blackwell, a Republican, filed an appeal within a few hours of the decision.
The Ohio Democratic Party and a coalition of labor and voter rights groups had argued that Blackwell's order discriminated against the poor and minorities.
The state's Democrats, who sued Blackwell, said his directive would hurt their candidates more than it would Republicans because poor people tend to vote for Democrats and move more often.
The judge said that voters who go to the wrong polling place after moving without notifying the elections board, and those whose names cannot be found on the registration rolls, should be able to cast provisional ballots there.
Denying any voter the right to a provisional vote will erode confidence in the election and the incentive to vote, the judge said.
"Lessened participation at the polls diminishes the vitality of our democracy," said Carr, who was appointed to the court by President Clinton in 1994.
The judge ordered Blackwell to submit a new directive by Monday that complies with the federal Help America Vote Act.
There was no consensus on what impact the decision had on the counting of provisional ballots. Democrats said the ruling spelled out that they must be counted while Blackwell spokesman Carlo LoParo said it wasn't clear.
Blackwell called Carr's decision a misinterpretation of the federal act.
"The law specifically leaves the issuing and counting of those ballots to states in accordance with state law," Blackwell said.
Ohio law requires voters to cast ballots at the correct polling place, he said.
The issue now goes before the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.
Dennis White, chairman of the state Democratic Party, said Blackwell should "be encouraging voting, not discouraging it."
U.S. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Cleveland said the decision was "in line with the spirit of the Help America Vote Act."
State election officials nationwide have adopted their own and differing standards for when a provisional ballot can be cast and counted.
Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia have adopted the view that a provisional ballot must be cast in the correct precinct, or it will not count.
At least one board had planned to defy Blackwell's order prior to the judge's ruling Thursday. Cuyahoga County's board of elections said it would accept provisional ballots.
Board Chairman Bob Bennett, who also leads the Ohio Republican Party, had said the board wouldn't count votes cast in violation of Ohio law, but that it did not want to deny ballots in order to avoid confrontation at the ballot box.
Jane Platten, administrator of the Cuyahoga elections board, said they were pleased the court provided clearly defined parameters.
Provisional ballots are not counted until after the election.
They are set aside and inspected by Democratic and Republican board employees to ensure they are valid. More than 100,000 provisional votes were cast in the 2000 election -- or about 2 percent of the total vote in the presidential election in which President Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore by 3.6 percentage points in Ohio.

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