In Ohio, Wary Eyes On Election Process

Clarence Rodgers has been driving Cleveland voters from the Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church to an early-voting center several times a week.
Clarence Rodgers has been driving Cleveland voters from the Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church to an early-voting center several times a week. (By Mary Pat Flaherty -- The Washington Post)
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By Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 30, 2008

CLEVELAND -- With Ohio still up for grabs in next week's presidential election, the conversation here has expanded from who will carry the state to how -- the nitty-gritty of registration lists, voting machines, court challenges and whether it all will play out fairly.

Tim Tatarowicz, who runs a small supermarket on Cleveland's east side, said his worry has grown as he has watched the push to add new voters and get them to cast ballots early. When actor Forest Whitaker appeared at a registration drive outside the store, the parking lot was packed.

"It was all to drive up numbers for Obama; I understand that," said Tatarowicz, 44. "But it's pushing absentee ballots that bothers me," he said, because "that makes cheating too easy."

Cheating is not easy, countered Geraldine Tallie, 61, who lives in the housing project across the street. But she does believe that people can make it too hard to vote.

Political parties and elected officials for weeks have been trading sharp accusations and litigation over voting issues here, often for political advantage. But now, among the people whose ballots are at stake, the question of whether their votes will count has become deeply personal.

During the primary, Tallie was one of those caught in long lines at a recreation center, one of 21 East Cleveland precincts ordered by a federal judge to remain open an extra 90 minutes to replenish ballot supplies. But because the order came through late, only 10 polling places reopened -- and state officials say just five additional votes were cast.

That convinced Tallie to vote early this time, not just to avoid the lines but also to make sure her ballot was in. "I wanted my say," she said.

The vitriol over voting increased this week when the Ohio Republican Party released a statewide radio ad that opens with the ticking of a clock and asks, "Could Ohio's election be stolen?" The ad will run up to 20 times a day in some markets and accuses Democratic Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner of failing to fight voting fraud.

Brunner has accused the Republicans of positioning themselves to challenge the election results if Barack Obama wins, arguing that a series of GOP-backed lawsuits are meant to suppress votes, help John McCain, and "segregate and pick off ballots if it's a close race."

In recent years, elections in Ohio have not gone smoothly. Four years ago, the weeks before the vote were filled with partisan legal battles, and Election Day was marred by long lines, too few machines in some precincts, and reports of poorly trained poll workers. After the election, amid recriminations, some charged that thousands of frustrated voters had gone home without casting ballots.

Those memories are still fresh, brought to the surface in recent weeks with Republicans and Brunner in court over a range of disputes, including how to resolve mismatched registrations for 200,000 new voters. That case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against the Republicans.

All of the fighting gets attention in Cleveland's Cuyahoga County, which has 1.1 million of Ohio's 8.2 million voters. It also has had the biggest jump in new registrations -- 123,000 since January, an increase of nearly 13 percent.

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