Quirk In Ohio Law Permits Same-Day Voting

People in Ohio this week may register to vote and cast an absentee ballot on the same day. Critics, including state Republicans, say this may open the door to voter fraud. Election officials are hoping to avoid a replay of 2004 when some people had to wait hours to vote.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Early voting has begun in Ohio. That means there are also early lawsuits and early allegations of dirty tricks, just like in the last presidential election. NPR's Robert Smith went to Columbus to get a look.

ROBERT SMITH: If you want a preview of how crazy things might get on Election Day, check out this scene. Yesterday morning in downtown Columbus, dozens of college students were waiting in line to be the first to vote. They had camped out all night long in the rain, listening to music, playing cards. David Preppen(ph) helped organize the all-night party for Barack Obama.

Mr. DAVID PREPPEN (Student): Well, a lot of people, you know, came over and asked us, you know, what are you guys thinking? You know, it's raining, it's pouring. A part of doing this was the idea that we would show everybody else that we were passionate and dedicated and as focused as we promised that we were.

SMITH: Over the next five weeks, the Obama campaign is going to be running a shuttle from the Ohio State University to this early voting place. Jonathan Lang is with another group called Faith Votes Columbus. They're cruising the homeless shelters and food pantries looking for anyone who wants to vote.

Mr. JONATHAN LANG (Member, Faith Votes Columbus) I'm sure that when politicians in political campaigns try to poll likely voters, the group of people we're bringing to vote here are not counted. We're bringing unlikely voters to the polls today.

SMITH: It's those unlikely voters - the poor, the homeless, the students - that have Ohio's Republican Party worried. Due to a quirk in the election law, early voting in Ohio is overlapping with the registration period this year. So this week, Ohioans can register and vote in just one stop. The state Republicans said this was opening the door for voter fraud, and they sued. Those lawsuits were thrown out. But Republican Party official Kevin DeWine accused Democrats of cheating anyway.

Representative KEVIN DEWINE (Republican, Ohio; Deputy Chairman, Ohio Republican Party): We are already receiving reports from around the state of Democrats and the Obama supporters offering everything from alcohol to concert tickets in exchange for voter registration and even votes.

SMITH: As proof, they showed NPR a flier from a bar in Columbus, Ohio, offering free drinks to anyone who registered to vote. It was not an official event of the Obama campaign, although it did mention his name.

Unidentified Election Official: Go to any available booth to mark your ballot. Make sure you fill out your envelope.

SMITH: Inside the polling place in Columbus, election officials say they haven't seen any problems yet. Ben Piscitelli with the Franklin County Board of Elections says they're expecting ten to twelve thousand people to come through over the next five weeks. And clearly, they need to be prepared for the unexpected.

Mr. BEN PISCITELLI (Spokesman, Franklin County Board of Elections): I don't think I've ever seen people camp out the night before an election just to vote. They were that excited.

SMITH: Well, you're taking no chances here. You've got 54 booths. You've got five registrars, and then 15 people printing out ballots.

Mr. PISCITELLI: Kind of like a belt and suspenders approach. That's right.

SMITH: Election officials in Ohio don't want another replay of 2004. On that Election Day, some voters had to wait hours to vote. Others claimed they were illegally turned away from the polls. George Bush won the state by fewer than 120,000 votes. So this time around, Ohio has made absentee voting much easier. In this county, they've doubled the number of voting machines. Chris Deering(ph) just moved to Columbus from Buffalo, New York. He managed to register and vote in 23 minutes cold. I timed it.

Mr. CHRIS DEERING: It did take me 23 minutes, but they're just getting started now, so once they work out the kinks, I'm sure it will take, you know, ten seconds.

SMITH: Back outside the polling place, Freddie Delamonti(ph) was waiting for his ride back to his homeless shelter. And he said the whole process couldn't have been easier.

Mr. FREDDIE DELAMONTI: In fact, I thought I'd have trouble, but no. You know, it's a good thing because a lot of homeless people are transit, and this early voting helps, you know, because they could be gone tomorrow, but their votes still will count.

SMITH: And Delamonti had a message for the Republicans challenging the legality of early voting. He'd just cast his ballot for John McCain.

Mr. DELAMONTI: The truth of it here, I like his running mate. Seems to me like she understands better than these guys that have been around for a long time, and they're big shots, you know?

SMITH: Five weeks from Election Day and Ohio was already voting and full of surprises. Robert Smith, NPR News.

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