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Lawsuit filed in Toledo over absentee ballots; a few polling problems reported


Associated Press   02 November 2004


A woman sued elections officials Tuesday on behalf of Ohio voters who claim they did not receive their absentee ballots on time, seeking permission for them to be able to cast provisional ballots at the polls.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Toledo with the help of the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights, a San Francisco-based group. A hearing closed to the public was ongoing Tuesday morning.

The lawsuit by Lucas County resident Sarah White claims that she and other legally registered voters asked for absentee ballots before the Oct. 30 deadline but did not receive them. Maria Blanco, executive director of the civil rights group, said she did not know how many voters did not receive requested absentee ballots but that the group has spoken with several people in Lucas County who did not get them.

Defendants named in the suit are the Lucas County elections board and Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, who the voters say unfairly ordered officials from allowing the voters to cast provisional ballots. Those ballots, if validated, would be counted days after the election.

Secretary of state spokesman Carlo LoParo said he had not heard any widespread reports of people not receiving their absentee ballots. He could not comment on the lawsuit, saying he had not seen it.

He said state law says that if a board of elections sent someone an absentee ballot, that person cannot try to vote at a polling place.

"Elections are a human endeavor. There will be a hiccup here and there. For the most part, today's election has run fairly smoothly," he said.

Messages were left Tuesday with the Lucas County prosecutor's office. Telephones at the elections board repeatedly went unanswered.

Of Ohio's 8 million registered voters, an estimated 598,000 people requested absentee ballots, according to an Associated Press survey of the state's 88 counties.

The lawsuit was the first legal challenge on Election Day in Ohio, where voters stood in long lines, some keeping people waiting two hours.

Some of the political parties' voter challengers were turned away temporarily at some precincts. As voting opened, some poll workers had not immediately heard about a court ruling reversing an order to keep the challengers out of polling sites, said Cheryl Ellis, a spokeswoman at the Cuyahoga County board of elections.

Democratic challenger John Douglas said a presiding judge kicked him out of a church basement polling place in Cleveland. "She was screaming about police," he said.

But about 20 minutes later, Jacqueline Atkinson, another presiding judge at the precinct, told Douglas he could come back in.

"She can scream all she wants to," Atkinson told him. "Just stand by me. You have a right to be here."

Franklin County Board of Elections spokesman Colin Yoder said about five polling places opened about 7 a.m. instead of 6:30 a.m. because precinct officials arrived late. Once open, some of the county's electronic voting machines were temporarily down because of overcharged batteries.

With the stakes so high in must-win Ohio, Republicans and Democrats have hundreds of lawyers and observers in the state to monitor voting and file lawsuits if necessary.

Both parties got more involved with the voting early Tuesday when a federal appeals court cleared the way for the challengers to be present at Ohio polling places.

Democrats claimed the challengers, who can question whether a person can legally cast a ballot, would disenfranchise some voters. Democrats planned to sue if they believe voters, particularly the poor and minorities, are unfairly denied a chance to choose.

People who believe they are legally registered but are challenged or don't show up on rolls can use a provisional ballot in the precinct where they live. Such votes are set aside and counted after the election once eligibility is verified.

Outside groups - from the NAACP to a crew for filmmaker Michael Moore to observers from other countries - have said they plan to be near Ohio polling places to watch the process and help voters if needed.

"We're looking to have people cast ballots that will be counted," said Mel Schwarzwald, the Cuyahoga County leader of the nonpartisan Voter Protection Coalition. The group stationed more than 500 lawyers and twice as many monitors at polls across Ohio.

The U.S. Department of Justice dispatched three times as many poll watchers to closely contested states, including Ohio. Elections officials beefed up staffs and security.

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