About one-third of the absentee ballot applications received at the Hamilton
County Board of Elections have been ruled invalid because Republican Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign printed a version of the form with an extra, unneeded box on it.
In a narrow interpretation of Ohio law, Democratic Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner says many of the McCain forms have not been completed properly. If the box stating the person is an eligible elector -- or qualified voter – is not checked, Brunner said, the application is no good.
Even though the box is unneeded, by not checking it voters are essentially admitting they’re not eligible, Brunner said.
“I have not seen a ruling that indirectly impacts voters to the enormity of this since I’ve been here,’’ Hamilton County Board of Elections Deputy Director John Williams said of his nearly five-year tenure at the board.
More than 750 absentee ballot requests in Hamilton County have been invalidated because of Brunner’s ruling, Williams said.
Absentee voting begins in 19 days, or on Sept. 30.
If a registered Ohio voter’s application is rejected, Brunner said, “We said you have to notify them within 48 hours and we also suggest that (Board of Elections) send them a new application.”
That means county Boards of Election must contact tens of thousands of voters and ask them to fill out a new, valid form in time to vote for the Nov. 4 election.
The McCain campaign says it mailed out about 1 million of the faulty forms.
"The form contains the necessary requirements and has been accepted in past elections, so this election should be no different,’’ Jon Seaton, McCain’s regional campaign manager,’ said today. "Qualified voters who request absentee ballots should receive them.’’
“If I were a voter, I wouldn’t be very happy,” Brunner said. “I’m stuck with the law. You shouldn’t have to check a box.”
Brunner insists she would have ruled the same way if the absentee ballot applications were printed by Sen. Barack Obama’s Democratic campaign for president.
Regardless, her ruling is likely to be challenged in court.
Williams said he has asked a county prosecutor how to proceed. He said state law does not require a separate box on a form, only a printed statement that the voter is a qualified elector.
“This has been a huge wrench in our operation,’’ Williams said.
“There’s an enormous time and cost involved,’’ Williams said. “If that box was not there, but a four-leaf clover was there, what do you do with that? What if it was a circle that was next to that? What if it was an asterisk? Effectively what she is saying is it doesn’t need to be there, but if it’s there you need to check it.”
Letters will be sent out to everyone whose absentee applications were rejected, with instructions on how to fill out the form properly. Williams wondered aloud what part of the faulty form should be returned to avoid new confusion, and not disenfranchise voters.
Brunner was elected in 2006 on a campaign encouraging fewer restrictions on voters and more improvements in the election process to make the system easier and more transparent following two presidential elections in which Ohio was riddled with problems involving punch-card ballots, touchscreen machines, long lines and registration snafus.
Brunner said state law does not require one standardized form to apply for an absentee ballot. While the Secretary of State prints its own application, the law says it need not be a particular form. A voter can merely send a letter with personal information that identifies him or her as a qualified elector to receive an absentee ballot, Brunner said.
Some county Boards of Election have asked Brunner why they should pay to fix the application error. “The law is clear. The problem is with McCain’s form,’’ she said.
But Brunner said she does not have the authority to order any campaign to reimburse counties for the new mailing costs to fix the problem.