There was a traffic jam on the highway leading to the early voting station in Franklin County, Ohio, on Monday. Inside the former box store, lines snaked around the showroom floor with voters waiting more or less patiently for an hour or more.
In the center of the polling place stood a separate line coiled in a tight rectangle, a hundred or so people holding bright-yellow provisional ballots. These harmless looking documents could be the hanging chads of 2012, throwing the final results of the election to Nov. 17 or later in what state party leaders call the “nightmare scenario.”
The man set to be cast as the Katherine Harris of this potential debacle is Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican and former speaker of the state house in his early 40s. Opponents regard Husted as a partisan operative trying to tip the scales, while he argues that he has done everything possible to level the playing field and extend early voting in “the most important swing state in the country”.
As both campaigns have preemptively lawyered up in the Buckeye State, a last-minute directive issued Friday by Husted—who has also cut down on early in-person voting hours, even trying to eliminate the Sunday before the election when African-American send “Souls to the Polls”—could have a dramatic impact on the election.
At issue is a section of the provisional ballot where the voter fills in the official ID verifying their legitimacy. Husted has gone to court arguing that voters who do not fill out that section of the ballot—without assistance from polling officials—should have their ballot invalidated when the counting time comes.
“There’s no magic number” of provisional ballots that would trigger a challenge, Husted told me on election eve.
This seems to contradict sections of Ohio law and a previous court agreement, and so the measure is with the judges again, leaving local election administrators waiting for legal clarification that won't come until the votes are in.
“It’s partisan politics, you know that,” said one local official with an experienced sigh.
If the election in Ohio is very close, who our next president will be could hang in the balance of the recounting process, overseen by Husted’s office. But what’s the threshold at which provisional ballots could end up extending the election and picking the president?
“There’s no magic number,” Husted told me on election eve. “Let’s say one of the candidates was ahead by 10,000 votes on election night. Well, if you had 200,000 [provisional] votes outstanding, that would certainly be more than enough outstanding ballots to cover that lead. That would be a scenario under which the counting of those ballots that came in late or were cast provisionally could change the outcome.”
I asked him about the legal wrangling over the contested Voter I.D. portion of the provisional ballot, and he said: “If I were a voter, I would not want that taken out of my hands … I don’t want to be prohibited from writing my own Social Security number on there and relying on a poll worker to do that for me. Because what if they get it wrong? If they get it wrong, my ballot doesn’t count. So if I was casting the ballot, I would want to be able to write that information in there so I could make sure that my ballot counted.”
This seems like spin to me.
The issue is making sure every ballot cast is counted, not impeding the individual freedom to fill out a form. And so I asked him: why not err on the side of inclusivity by allowing both individuals and poll workers to make sure the identification section was properly filled out so that votes would be counted?
“I’m perfectly willing to have that, but that's not on the table as an option right now,” Husted said. “I’m more than willing to, to come to that compromise on the issue. I think that’s fine, but it’s not one that's on the table to settle the issue … Hopefully, we’ll have a clear decision tomorrow night and none of this will matter.”
Whether this will matter also hinges on whether the vote in Ohio is close. Polls there have shown a small but steady 2 to 3 percent lead for President Obama. Their money in the bank is early voting—the crux of the OFA campaign strategy from more than 100 local headquarters here.
It’s true that the college-game enthusiasm of the first Obama campaign has changed into something more sober and resolute, but that doesn’t mean that turnout is down. In fact, early vote participation in key swing districts is up.
In Stark County, the total number of early votes cast by absentee ballot and in person is up from 2008 for Democrats. The Obama campaign has been targeting allied independent voters as well (in Ohio, being designated as Independent for Board of Election purposes simply means that the voter hasn’t participated in a recent partisan primary—and these infrequent voters could be the Obama campaign’s secret weapon). While 15,872 Democrats requested absentee ballots, almost 14,500 have mailed them in as of the eve of the election—meaning that the number of potential provisional ballots will be just 1 percent of the total early vote (including in-person voting). The Democrat's early voting edge in Stark means that they are confident of winning the cities of Canton, Massillon, and Alliance.
If Stark County is indicative of the other swing counties, we have reason to hope that we won’t be waiting until mid-November to find out who is president.
So here’s hoping we never have to deal with the nightmare scenario. But when the election is decided—hopefully within 24 hours—we’re going to need to focus again on uniting as a nation and that will be difficult enough.
Watch Bruce Springsteen stump for Obama in Ohio on Monday.