CINCINNATI – A federal appeals court ruled Saturday that provisional ballots Ohio voters cast outside their own precincts should not be counted, throwing out a lower-court decision that said such ballots are valid as long as they are cast in the correct county.
The ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (search) supports an order issued by Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell (search). Democrats contend the Republican official's rules are too restrictive and allege they are intended to suppress the vote.
Ohio Democrats were discussing in a conference call Saturday night whether to file an appeal in the case, one of the first major tests of how such ballots will be handled in a close election. Polls show that the race between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry in the key swing state is too close to call.
Federal judges in several states have issued varying rulings on the issue of provisional ballots, which are intended to be backups for eligible voters whose names do not appear on the rolls. Saturday's ruling was the first time a federal appeals court has weighed in.
The state's Democrats had filed a lawsuit challenging Blackwell's directive instructing county elections boards not to give ballots to voters who come to the wrong precinct and to send them to the correct polling place on Election Day.
Blackwell has said allowing voters to cast a ballot wherever they show up, even if they're not registered to vote there, is a recipe for Election Day chaos.
The Ohio Democratic Party and a coalition of labor and voter rights groups argue that Blackwell's order discriminated against the poor and minorities, who tend to move more frequently.
U.S. District Judge James Carr on Oct. 14 blocked Blackwell's directive, ruling that Ohio voters who show up at the wrong polling place still can cast ballots as long as they are in the county where they are registered. Blackwell appealed to the 6th Circuit.
A message seeking comment from Blackwell spokesman Carlo LoParo was not immediately returned Saturday.
Similar court battles are under way in other states. In Florida, a federal judge ruled Thursday that the state must reject provisional ballots if they are cast in the wrong precinct.
In Michigan, a federal judge said those ballots must be counted if cast by voters at the wrong precinct but in the right city, township or village. That decision also has been appealed to the 6th Circuit, but the appellate court has yet to issue a ruling in that case.
In Missouri and Colorado, judges have ruled that votes in the wrong place don't have to be counted.
Provisional ballots are not counted until after the election. They are set aside and inspected by Democratic and Republican election board employees to establish their validity.
States nationwide have adopted individual standards for when a provisional ballot can be cast and counted. Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia require a provisional ballot to be cast in the correct precinct, or it will not count.
In 2000, Bush beat Al Gore by only 3.6 percentage points in Ohio, which went for Democrat Bill Clinton in the two previous elections. More than 100,000 provisional ballots were cast in Ohio during the 2000 election.