Court rules against counting ballots cast incorrectly in Ohio


Ohio voters who insist on casting a ballot at the wrong polling place will not have their votes counted, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Voters who show up at the wrong polling place next week will be told they cannot cast a legal vote there. And if they insist on casting a provisional ballot, it will go uncounted.

The decision is the latest to clarify the rules for counting provisional ballots in Ohio, rules that will take on enormous importance next week if the presidential candidates are locked in a close contest.


Four years ago, more than 200,000 voters in Ohio cast provisional ballots for one of several reasons, including that their names did not appear on the registration rolls. About 14,000 of these ballots were not counted in 2008 because the voters had cast them in the wrong precinct.

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This “wrong precinct” rule was challenged by some advocacy groups. And in August, a federal judge ruled the state must count these “wrong precinct” provisional ballots of voters who went to the right polling place, but were directed to the wrong table.

Ohio cities sometimes send voters from several precincts to a single polling place. Because of an understandable confusion between both poll workers and voters, some ballots were cast in the wrong precinct, even though the voter had showed up at the right place.

In early October, the U.S. appeals court in Cincinnati upheld the judge’s order requiring the state to count these “right church, wrong pew” ballots. The judges agreed the voters should not be penalized for such an inadvertent error.

But two weeks ago, U.S. District Judge Algenon Marbley expanded his order from August and said the state must count all the ballots that are cast in the wrong place within a county.

This went too far, state officials said, and the U.S. Court of Appeals agreed Wednesday, ruling that “wrong place-wrong precincts” ballots need not be counted. The appeals court said the judge’s expanded order would wrongly “absolve voters of all responsibility for voting in the correct precinct or correct polling place.”

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, who had appealed the order, welcomed the ruling. “With six days to go before election day, I am pleased that the Court [of Appeals] has granted a stay in this case so that I can give the 88 county boards of election that clear direction they need on the rules for processing provisional ballots,” he said.

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