In Ohio, a spelling error could cost you
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[November 01, 2016]
By John Whitesides and Andy Sullivan
COLUMBUS, Ohio/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -
Voting is no easy task for Roland Gilbert. The 86-year-old retired Ohio
lawyer, who is legally blind, completes his absentee ballot with help
from a machine that magnifies the print.
So the registered Democrat was not completely surprised to learn he had
made an error in filling out his 2014 ballot, entering that day's date
in the birthdate field.
What surprised him was that it cost him his vote. Local election
officials rejected it because it did not perfectly match his
registration information on file.
"It didn't seem right," Gilbert said. "I felt foolish for making a silly
Laws passed by the Republican-led Ohio state legislature in 2014 require
voters to accurately fill out their personal information on absentee or
provisional ballots or they will be rejected - even if the votes are
otherwise valid. The laws are being applied in a presidential election
for the first time this year.
A Reuters analysis found that where a voter lives can determine whether
their provisional or absentee ballot counts in Ohio. The law requiring a
perfect match on information such as name, address, birthdate, signature
and ID number has been enforced unequally county to county, federal data
and court documents show, with local officials sometimes using wide
latitude in applying the standards.
The disparity could hurt Democrats in Ohio, a vital battleground in the
Nov. 8 election between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary
Clinton. The 14 Ohio counties with the most restrictive enforcement
accounted for 53 percent of Ohio's total vote in 2012 and gave
Democratic President Barack Obama 60 percent of the votes he won in
More than half of the provisional and absentee votes discarded for minor
errors in 2014 came from five large, Democratic-dominated urban
counties: Lucas, home to the city of Toledo; Cuyahoga, which includes
Cleveland; Franklin, home to the state capital, Columbus; Summit, which
includes Akron, the fifth-largest city in the state; and Hamilton
County, home of Cincinnati.
While the number of votes rejected for technical reasons was small in
the 2014 congressional election, when nearly 3,000 absentee and
provisional ballots were thrown out, those totals are likely to swell in
a presidential election, when more people will vote.
The number of discarded ballots could go even higher in Ohio after a
court ruled that tens of thousands of voters who had been purged from
the state voter rolls can cast provisional ballots, expanding the
possible pool of disputed votes.
A provisional ballot is used to record a vote when there are questions
about a voter’s eligibility. Election boards, split evenly between
Republicans and Democrats in Ohio, then examine the provisional ballots
to determine if the vote should count.
"There are going to be thousands of indisputably registered and eligible
voters in Ohio who are going to be disenfranchised solely because they
made trivial, immaterial errors and omissions on forms," said attorney
Subodh Chandra, who has led a court challenge to the laws on behalf of a
homeless coalition and the Ohio Democratic Party.
A federal district judge threw out the provisions requiring a perfect
match on personal information as discriminatory earlier this year, but
most were later restored by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The
appeals court did remove the requirement that voters accurately fill in
their address and birthdate on the absentee form - any vote cast by mail
or in person prior to Election Day - but kept the requirement for the
other fields on both types of ballots.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected without explanation a request
for an emergency stay of the appeals court ruling that would have
allowed ballots with those technical mistakes to be counted.
A spokesman for Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican, said
the 2014 laws were aimed at finding a balance between making it "easy to
vote and hard to cheat" and that officials were striving to be more
consistent in the law's application. The office has issued a directive
that mistakes in the address and birthdate fields of provisional ballots
should not be the sole basis for rejection if a board can still identify
Chandra and other critics say the Ohio laws are aimed at low-income and
minority voters who move more often and have less flexibility with
schedules, making them more likely to cast absentee or provisional
ballots. They also are more likely to back Democrats.
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Roland Gilbert, a blind 86-year-old Franklin County resident, stands
for a portrait at his home in Columbus, Ohio U.S., October 28, 2016.
"It's a clever scheme to shave off Democratic votes," said Chandra,
arguing the laws create a modern-day literacy test by requiring
voters to read, write and understand voting forms without making any
errors or leaving out information.
REPUBLICANS DENY RACIAL BIAS
Republican backers of the Ohio law reject the claims of racial or
"It is just nonsense," said Ohio State Senator Bill Coley, lead
sponsor of one of the bills. "We aren't trying to disallow their
ballot, we are trying to make sure that every ballot that is cast
was cast by an actual registered voter and you are cutting down on
opportunities for shenanigans."
U.S. Election Assistance Commission records show Democratic-leaning
Franklin, the state's second-largest county, was the most strict in
2014, throwing out 651 ballots for technical errors including
missing or incorrect Social Security numbers, zip codes, birthdates,
cities or street names.
Officials tossed five ballots because the voter wrote their name in
cursive. Another seven were rejected because the voter mixed up two
digits of their Social Security number, the federal data showed.
Some 256 were rejected because the voter did not provide a
"We are not allowed to do anything other than what the law says,"
said David Payne, deputy director of the Franklin County Board of
Elections. "We can't be arbitrary."
In Democratic-leaning Lucas County, the elections board rejected an
absentee ballot in 2014 because the street name was misspelled as
“Cuthberth” rather than “Cuthbert,” according to evidence presented
in the lawsuit.
SMALLER COUNTIES MORE FORGIVING
Many smaller, heavily Republican rural counties did not reject any
ballots for those reasons. In Wyandot County, ballots examined for
the lawsuit found officials approved ballots without a valid street
address, city or zip code, a wrong or missing birthdate, or a
"We're not monsters. We want to count everybody's vote," said Deb
Passet, elections director for Wyandot County, a sparsely populated
county south of Toledo where Republican presidential candidate Mitt
Romney won 59 percent of the vote in 2012.
Election officials in rural, Republican-leaning Adams County are
also more likely to forgive voters who make a mistake. "If there is
an opening and they can help the voter out, that's the way they will
go," said Mary Fannin, director of the county's board of elections.
Other states have tried to introduce similar exact-match information
requirements. Georgia and Wisconsin also faced recent challenges
that led to adjustments in laws requiring voters to provide
letter-perfect personal identification information.
The battle over the Ohio law is just one of several voting rights
disputes complicating election forecasts in the state. In the last
year, courts have also allowed the state to eliminate a period of
early voting, known as Golden Week, when voters could register and
cast a ballot on the same trip - a convenience that has been popular
with minority voters.
"People should not have to jump through all these hoops to get their
votes counted in Ohio," said Ohio Democratic Rep. Kathleen Clyde.
(Andy Sullivan reported from Washington.; Editing by Jason Szep and
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