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Ohio Election Rules in Limbo a Week Before Vote

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Ohio Election Rules in Limbo a Week Before Vote

Ohio Election Rules in Limbo a Week Before Vote

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In Ohio tomorrow, a federal judge is set to hear arguments over key parts of that state's new election reform law. The changes were aimed at solving the voting problems that came up during the 2004 presidential election.

But as Ohio Public Radio's Jo Ingles reports, some Ohioans think the new law is causing more problems than it's solving.

JO INGLES: When Henry Eckert went to the polls to vote in 2004, he stood in long lines to cast his ballot. He joined many Ohioans who waited long hours in line to vote. Since then lawmakers here passed legislation allowing any resident to vote by absentee ballot. To safeguard against fraud, the law also requires voters to show identification, most commonly their driver's license. So the changes should make Henry Eckert happy, but they don't.

Mr. HENRY ECKERT: And I voted absentee so I wouldn't have the problems of standing in the lines at the polls. I filled out the form and the envelope and it said put in either your driver's license number or Social Security last four digits. I don't want to mess with my Social Security number, so I did the driver's license number that I thought was the right number. The big bold number on top of the license. Turns out that's not the right number.

INGLES: Eckert is an attorney specializing in election law and has been casting ballots for more than half a century. And he's not the only one confused over driver's license numbers. Voting officials here estimate that thousands of Ohioans are making the same mistake.

To make matters worst, some counties are apparently doing a better job of alerting voters to this potential pitfall than others. So Eckert is suing the state over the new voter identification requirements. Richie Hollenball is one of his attorneys.

Attorney RICHIE HOLLENBALL (Counsel for Henry Eckert): The directives that have been issued by then state are generally confusing and are being applied differently from one board of election to another, so that if you're a voter in one county, you maybe required to produce certain types of identification, where in other counties you may not.

INGLES: Just like week, Hollenball got a federal court to temporarily suspend the voter ID rule for absentee ballots. Ohio's secretary of state and Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell was willing to let that ruling stand.

Blackwell thinks a legal tug of war will lead to more voter confusion. But that tug of war is now fully underway. The Republican who lost to Blackwell in a nasty gubernatorial primary is pulling rank. Ohio's attorney general Jim Petro is fighting to keep the voter ID requirements.

Petro won a battle last weekend when a federal appeals court overruled the action, putting ID requirements for absentee ballots on hold. That marked the second court ruling on election protocol in just one week.

Petro argues a new law is constitutional, then adds he'll defend voters like Eckert, who tried to comply with the new law.

Mr. JIM PETRO (Attorney General, Ohio): Good faith effort to comply with the statute, even if they may have put down the wrong driver's license number or even if their utility bill was 10 months old, to me that good faith effort should meet compliance and allow that vote to be counted.

INGLES: But Catherine Turcer with Ohio Citizen Action says voter confusion is rampant. She says a spate of corruption scandals here have made many Ohio voters wary of state government. Turcer says they remember the election problems two years ago.

Ms. CATHERINE TURCER (Ohio Citizen Action): It's actually likely to be even worst this year. We have new machines and on top of that, we have this new voter identification rules. And they kind of keep switching because we're in the middle of this kind of court drama, and so voters are left with, what do I have to bring? What don't I have to bring? What's going to happen?

INGLES: Ned Foley is an election law expert at Ohio State University. He says the federal court will scrutinize the new voter ID law at tomorrow's hearing to see how it's being administered in the state's 88 counties.

Mr. NED FOLEY (Ohio State University): If the law is administered unfairly and unevenly, it does raise a constitutional problem. So if you have some voters, say in the north of Ohio, having to provide one kind of ID, other voters in the south providing something different - that's a serious constitutional problem.

INGLES: Many polls here are showing that the Republican Party's domination of Ohio politics could be coming to an end. But Ohio remains a contentious political battleground this year. And the legal tussle over voter ID requirements seems only to be fanning the partisan flames.

For NPR News, I'm Jo Ingles in Columbus.

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