Ohio Must Count “Right Place Wrong-Precinct” Ballots, Fed Court Says

Ohio elections officials must count provisional ballots with errors, usually caused by elections officials, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday (October 11).

The 6th U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upheld a lower court's ruling that provisional ballots cast in the correct polling place but wrong precinct must not be thrown out, as had been required under Ohio law.

The ruling will likely affect thousands of votes cast next month in the coveted swing state. In 2008, Ohio rejected more than 14,000 wrong-precinct ballots, which were cast in most counties. In 2010, those rejections topped 11,000. The vast majority of those errors, the court found, were likely the fault of poll workers who handed voters the wrong ballot.

“The State would disqualify thousands of right place/wrong-precinct provisional ballots, where the voter's only mistake was relying on the poll-worker's precinct guidance,” the three-judge panel wrote. “That path unjustifiably burdens these voters' fundamental right to vote.”

The case has received little attention, particularly compared to hyper-partisan disputes over voter ID laws in Ohio and other states. But Rick Hasen, an expert in election law, called the ruling “the most important decision in this election cycle.”

“It represents a major victory for voters' rights, regardless of party,” he wrote Thursday on his blog. “The problem of poll worker error is one which has not gotten enough attention and needs to get more attention,” he wrote previously.

The ruling particularly excites Democrats, whose voters are more likely to cast provisional ballots. The ballots are used in many cases, such as when voters lack proper identification or do not have names on registration lists.

Jon Husted, Ohio's Republican Secretary of State, had argued other factors could also lead to error-laden provisional ballots. Some voters, he argued, might intentionally vote in a different, more contested precinct, thereby tainting the results. The appeals court said such scenarios defied logic and the evidence presented.

The ruling is the second major loss for Husted in less than two weeks. Last Friday, the same appeals court said Ohio could not do away with early voting on the three days before Election Day.

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