A new Ohio program intended to make voting easier has the potential to keep the presidential election in doubt until late November if the national outcome hinges on the state's 18 electoral votes.
Under Secretary of State Jon Husted's initiative to send absentee ballot applications to nearly 7 million registered voters across Ohio, more than 800,000 people so far have asked for but not yet completed an absentee ballot for the Nov. 6 election.
Anyone who does not return an absentee ballot, deciding instead to vote at the polls, will be required to cast a provisional ballot. That's so officials may verify that they did not vote absentee and also show up at the polls.
By state law, provisional ballots may not be counted until at least Nov. 17. That means that if Ohio's electoral votes would be decisive in the race between President Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the state could keep the nation in suspense for weeks after the election.
"That would be called my nightmare scenario," said Amy Searcy, director of the Hamilton County Board of Elections.
But it is also, election experts warn, a distinctly possible scenario if the vote in Ohio â?? and nationwide â?? is close. "We could easily see a situation in which the nation has to wait for Ohio because of provisionals," said Ed Foley, an Ohio State University law professor and expert on election law. "We ought to start thinking about those what-if scenarios now rather than the Wednesday morning after the election."
Through Oct. 19, about 1.43 million Ohioans had requested an absentee ballot, but only 618,861 had returned their vote by mail, according to Husted's office. Both numbers will grow by Nov. 3, the deadline for most Ohioans to request an absentee ballot.
And nearly 190,000 people had cast absentee ballots in person at their county boards of elections or designated early voting centers in Ohio's 88 counties. Many of the 800,000-plus voters who have not yet mailed back their completed absentee ballot likely plan to wait until closer to Election Day to do so.
A wide gap between requested and returned ballots, however, raises the possibility that many who opt to go to their precinct on Nov. 6 will be forced to vote provisionally.
The circumstances that typically produce provisional ballots - cast when a voter's eligibility is in question, often after someone has moved or changed their name without updating their registration - also can be expected next month. Four years ago, nearly 207,000 provisional votes were cast statewide.
Those "normal" provisional votes and ones stemming from unused absentee ballots could push that overall number higher this year. In addition, another potentially sizable chunk of ballots also will be uncounted on election night: absentees postmarked by Nov. 5 and that reach election boards within the 10 post-election days allowed.
Having hundreds of thousands of votes effectively on hold would keep the presidential election in limbo if Ohio's electoral votes are needed for either Obama or Romney to reach the 270-vote majority required.
"I really hope that doesn't happen - but it could," said Tim Burke, chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party and the county board of elections. "And we know that provisional votes can change an election."
Husted staffers and other officials say, based on recent elections, they expect the number of unused absentee ballots to shrink substantially by Election Day. In the 2008 presidential election, 1.81 million absentee ballots were requested and 1.74 million â?? a gap of only about 70,000 â?? were cast.
But there is one significant difference this year. In past elections, most Ohioans had to proactively request an absentee ballot. This year, Husted simplified the process by sending an application to registered voters statewide. An unintended consequence of that could be to increase the number of people who ask for an absentee ballot but do not use it, not realizing that means they must vote provisionally at the polls.
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 polls workers. Four years ago, nearly 40,000 provisionals â?? roughly one in five â?? were invalidated for various reasons.
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