WASHINGTON — A federal judge in Ohio has blocked an unusual state election law that calls for throwing out thousands of provisional ballots that are cast in the wrong precinct, even when the voter goes to the right polling place.
“The Constitution demands a safety net without holes,” said U.S. District Judge Algenon Marbley in ordering Ohio officials to count the ballots.
The ruling arose from a voting rights lawsuit, one of several in Ohio and elsewhere, that seeks to resolve potentially crucial election rules prior to November.
Four years ago, Ohio rejected more than 14,000 provisional ballots because they were cast in the wrong precinct. In many instances, the confusion arose because in some cities a single polling place served voters from several precincts.
Sometimes, voters at one table were told to fill out a provisional ballot, which was then thrown out if they were in the wrong spot.
After the disputed election in Florida that decided the 2000 presidential race, Congress called for the use of provisional ballots so votes would not be rejected on election day because poll workers could not adequately verify a voter’s identity. But under the 2006 law in Ohio, the provisional ballots were automatically rejected if they were cast in the wrong precinct, even if the mistake was due to a poll worker’s error.
Ohio has the highest rate of provisional ballots of any state.
Lawyers for the Advancement Project sued to challenge what they referred to as the “right church, wrong pew” rule. They argued it was unconstitutional to reject a ballot cast by a legal voter who went to the right polling place.
Marbley’s order said Ohio election officials “may not reject any provisional ballots cast by lawfully registered voters in the November 2012 general election,” unless the voter was told he or she was in the wrong precinct.
“We applaud today’s ruling for protecting the right to vote in Ohio,” said Penda Hair, a co-director of the project. “For too long, Ohio had simply turned a blind eye to the rampant errors that resulted in voters being provided the wrong ballots and then used said errors as an excuse to throw those votes away.”
Secretary of State Jon Husted defended the “wrong precinct” rule as required under Ohio law. “We respectfully disagree with the judge’s ruling and will likely appeal,” said spokesman Matt McClellan.
The lawsuit was brought on behalf of the Service Employees International Union, the Ohio Democratic Party and several other groups.