Once again in Ohio, the presidential polls are tied and its 20 electoral votes up for grabs. Such scenarios generally don’t lend themselves to gentle politics.
Ohio Republicans have been raging at what they claim is a raft of phony voter registrations by Democrats. (Rush Limbaugh has been whipping up passions on his end.) They’ve put a face on their wrath, and it belongs to Jennifer Brunner, Ohio’s secretary of state and a Democrat.
“Eight different actions were filed against me in just a month,” Brunner told me. This being Ohio, Brunner said she expected election-related suits, but she “was assuming eight for the whole election season.” She’s also received death threats.
Here’s the issue: Federal law requires states to check new registrants against databases at their motor vehicle bureau or the Social Security Administration. Any mismatch is flagged for later examination.
Ohio has had 660,000 new registration applications, and the information on as many as 200,000 did not match that on one of the databases.
The Ohio Republican Party demanded a list of all flagged names. Brunner refused, fearing that partisan poll workers would use the information to challenge thousands of voters on Election Day. Her worry is chaos at the polls and long lines that would discourage many from participating.
These non-matches are common and usually reflect computer error or a bureaucrat’s sloppy typing. In some states, 30 percent of the names didn’t match, according to the Brennan Center at the New York University Law School.
Complicating matters, Ohio’s motor vehicle bureau has often (and unnecessarily) used the Social Security database after getting a perfect match from a driver’s license. That opened new avenues for discrepancies.
Among Ohioans flagged as mismatches is Joe the Plumber — Toledo’s Joe Wurzelbacher, made famous in the third presidential debate. Another was Jon Husted, the speaker of the Ohio House and a Republican. Both cases involved a misspelled name.
Ohioans have every reason to express concern over possible sham registrations, Brunner says. But the state has ways to deal with that.
“Because of multilayered checks, very few fraudulent votes will get through,” she insists. “When people show up to vote on Election Day, they’ll still have to provide their identification.” That could be a photo identification — driver’s license, other state or military ID — or a recent document (bank statement, utility bill) showing a name and address that conforms with board of elections records.
Voters who can’t resolve discrepancies but believe they are properly registered must be given provisional ballots. These ballots are counted much later after a verification process.
Large numbers of provisional ballots create “huge problems,” Brunner said. For each such ballot, the voter has to make a lengthy statement, as does a poll worker. That’s why election officials dread mass challenges of voter eligibility at the polls.
Daniel Tokaji, a specialist in election law at Ohio State University, sides with Brunner on this. “In a close election,” he said, “you can imagine the parties are going to be fighting tooth and nail over every provisional ballot. The hanging chad of this year is provisional ballots.”
On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a lower federal court’s order to supply the list of mismatched names to Ohio Republicans, and the GOP immediately filed suit in the state Supreme Court. The state party chairman then accused Brunner of “actively working to conceal fraudulent activity in this election” and called on Ohioans to be “outraged and disgusted by her partisanship.”
Two weeks to go before the election battle is over — or just beginning if close results make Ohio a deciding factor. Too bad. Autumn should be a pretty time in the Buckeye State.
Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.