Absentee votes made up 20 percent of local vote

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 29, 2007

It’s true that every vote counts in an election. And this year in Lawrence County, it was the absentee votes that made a big impact.

Although the county has 43,000 registered voters, in the Nov. 6 election, only 16,699 people voted. And of those votes, 3,463, or 20 percent, were absentee votes.

Eric Bradshaw, the deputy director of the board of elections, said absentee votes have always had a big impact on the elections, especially in races then there is low turnout during the non-presidential elections.

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“It really helps those who get out there and hustle for votes,” Bradshaw said.

He said he expects more people to vote by absentee ballot.

“At this rate, it’s what candidates have to do to win,” he said. “So, yes, we are going to see it more and more. When people realize that if they don’t play the game, they are going to lose the game.”

In 2006, the state loosened the rules for voting by absentee ballot for any reason. Before it had been mainly confined to people serving in the military or with a medical condition.

Bradshaw said the absentee ballots were designed to be a good thing, but he said sometimes it gets abused.

He said around election time, he hears rumors that people who are helping with the absentee ballots are actually filling them out for the voter so it helps their candidate.

“I can’t say these things happen, but that’s the rumor,” he said. But rumors are just that until someone files a formal complaint with the board and the matter is investigated. He said no one has filed any complaints this year.

Patrick Gallaway, the director of communications for the Ohio Secretary of State, said his office doesn’t receive many calls complaining of absentee ballots. The office has a voting rights institute which deals with election complaints.

The only major complaint the office has received this about absentee ballots was from Summit County where a mail bag of absentee ballots were dropped at the post office, but weren’t delivered.

In Summit County, there was a primary for an Akron council seat and 210 ballots never made it to the board of elections by Election Day. They arrived two days later and weren’t accepted even though they were postmarked up to five days before the election.

“They showed up after and by state law they couldn’t be counted,” Gallaway said.

The city sued to get the ballots included but a judge threw the case out saying the city did not have standing to sue. None of the voters filed suit.

In response to the situation, State Rep. Stephen Dyer, D-Green, introduced a bill that would require all ballots postmarked on Election Day and received within 10 days be counted by the board of elections, just like military voters.

But Gallaway said the Secretary of State’s Office remains supportive of absentee voting because of many positives, including voters educating themselves on candidates and issues.

“The opportunity for a citizen to provide no explanation of why they want an absentee ballot is very good,” he said. “And it relieves congestion at the polling booth. People can get the ballot and research the candidates on the Internet.”

He said looking toward the 2008 election, he expects to see even more voting by absentee ballot.

“It will probably be a really good option for a lot of voters if they want to avoid lines,” Gallaway said. “We expect a record turnout come to 2008.”

Locally, Bradshaw said he saw less people coming in to check absentee ballots that were turned down this year than in past years.

“We had about half a dozen hard workers this year. In the past we have had larger groups that concentrated on one race or on one highly contested race,” he said. “In the last municipal judge race, there was a real machine working.”

Bradshaw said there is nothing wrong with people coming in to the board of elections’ office and doing that.

“When they step the line is when they go out and vote people’s ballots,” he said.

While people can help other people vote, they cannot fill out the ballot for them. For example, when someone requests help at a polling station reading a ballot, a poll worker from both parties helps the voter to make sure they aren’t unduly influenced.

“If someone fills out ballots for someone else, it is illegal,” Gallaway said. “I think most absentee voters understand the process and treat it as if they were voting in the poll booth.”

Bradshaw said he thinks the state should have early voting to cut down on the absentee ballots.

“I think Ohio should go to early voting to take care of these types of things,” he said. His thought it is that 30 days before the election there should be a few polling booths set up so people who can’t vote on Election Day can vote early.

“Thirty days would be plenty of time,” he said. “It is just my thoughts on it.”

The Lawrence County Board of Elections will release the official results of the election after all votes, including provisional ballots, are counted on Nov. 19 at 5 p.m.