By Sean Rice
A federal appeals court has upheld Ohio law and overturned a lower court decision that loosened the rules for provisional voting.
Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell notified county boards of elections this week that the provisional voting procedure stands as it was. Voters who do not show up on the registration list because of an address or name change can vote provisional, and only at the voter's correct precinct.
The decision overturned a U.S. district court decision stating that voters can simply choose to vote provisional for any reason and at any location in their home county.
In a directive to county boards of elections, Blackwell states poll workers must direct voters to their correct voting location and tell them ballots cast at the wrong location will not be counted. If a voter demands to vote in the wrong voting location, they must complete a short form stating they understand a ballot cast in the wrong precinct will not be counted.
Interim Mercer County Elections Director Diana Grile said the affirmation is a mechanism to protect boards from lawsuits. Blackwell on Tuesday also ordered elections boards to let voters who have had their registration challenged to still cast provisional ballots on Election Day.
If vote totals for presidential candidates are so close that provisional ballots are needed to determine a winner, the race could take more than two weeks to call. Polls show that Ohio's race between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry is too close to call.
No Republican has ever won the White House without taking Ohio. Only two Democrats have in more than 100 years.
Blackwell's Tuesday order followed the Ohio Republican Party's challenge of the 35,000 voter registrations last week, after the GOP said mail sent to the voters came back undelivered.
Republicans say the undelivered turned mail could signal fraudulent registrations. Democrats say the GOP is targeting new voters registered by political groups supporting Kerry.
Hearings are still expected to take place in counties where voters are being challenged to prove they live at the address where they're registered. Blackwell's order directs elections boards to hold hearings on any pending challenges to voter registrations and rule immediately on the challenges.
Mercer County received no early challenges to the registration list and no hearings are scheduled.
An election worker in Auglaize County today said approximately 20 voter cards have been challenged there. Hearings are set for Friday, and each person being challenged was notified.
If the board rules against a voter, elections officials should flag the person's name as a candidate for possible removal from registration lists, Blackwell said. If those people try to vote on Election Day, they'll be allowed to cast provisional ballots as long as they go to the precinct where they currently live.
''No voter will be permanently removed from Ohio's voting rolls as a result of lack of attendance at the hearing,'' said Blackwell spokesman Carlo LoParo.
Democrats immediately criticized Blackwell's ruling, saying it would allow boards to reject the registrations of anyone who can't attend a hearing, such as a soldier on active duty.
''Just because a legitimate voter wasn't able to attend a hearing, it doesn't mean they should be forced to cast a provisional ballot,'' said Myron Marlin, a Democratic Party spokesman.
Some counties have voted to reject all GOP challenges, as the Butler County election board did with a 4-0 decision Monday. The board decided it already had identified the 255 voters named in the challenges and said errors could account for some of the mail being returned.
''It seems like anybody that doesn't have a regular ongoing address is certainly people that they would want to challenge,'' said Bill Faith, a Columbus-based advocate for the homeless in Ohio. ''But there are people that don't have a regular, ongoing address that have every right in the world to vote.''
-- The Associated Press contributed to this story.