Appeals court tells Ohio to count ballots tainted by poll worker mistakes

A federal appeals court on Thursday dealt the latest blow to Ohio’s voting procedures, saying the state must count ballots that are improperly cast because of a poll worker’s mistake.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit said it was wrong to penalize a voter for casting a vote in the wrong precinct when a poll worker is responsible for supplying the ballot. There were more than 14,000 such votes thrown out in the 2008 election.

The problem occurs because more than 80 percent of Ohio’s voters cast ballots in polling places that contain more than one precinct. Poll workers sometimes give a ballot for the wrong precinct to voters who must cast provisional ballots because they do not have proper ID or for some other reason.

Ohio in the past refused to count such votes, saying finding the proper precinct is the voter’s responsibility.

But unions and civil rights groups challenged that, saying voters should not be penalized for showing up at the right polling place, only to be given the wrong ballot.

The judges agreed.

“The state would disqualify thousands of right-place/wrong-precinct provisional ballots, where the voter’s only mistake was relying on the poll-worker’s precinct guidance,” the judges wrote in a unanimous, unsigned opinion. “That path unjustifiably burdens these voters’ fundamental right to vote.”

It was the second recent decision in which the appeals court has disagreed with Ohio’s Republican leadership over voting-law changes.

A separate panel blocked the state’s plan to allow only military voters to cast in-person ballots in the three days immediately before the Nov. 6 election. Siding with a challenge filed by President Obama’s reelection campaign, the judges said if in-person voting was open for some voters during that period, it must be offered to all.

Ohio has asked the Supreme Court to overturn that ruling. Elena Kagan, the justice responsible for overseeing the 6th Circuit, has called for the Obama campaign to file a response by Friday night, and the full court will likely decide whether to review the appeals court decision soon after that.

A spokesman for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine (R) said the state has not decided whether to appeal Thursday’s decision.

Danielle Leonard, an attorney for the Service Employees International Union, one of the groups that challenged Ohio’s law, called the decision “terrific for the voters of Ohio,” saying it “recognized that this is nothing the voter has done wrong.”

Leonard noted that the decision was unanimous even though the judges represented a wide swath of the ideological spectrum. The three judges on the appeals court were all appointed by Republican presidents, and they upheld a decision by a district judge appointed by a Democrat.

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006. He gave up law school plans for a life in newspapers after taking a journalism class in college. It did not occur to him, as it apparently did to others, that he could do both.
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