Marc Kovac, 3-27-13: No compromise in sight in provisional ballot debate

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COLUMBUS -- Let me get this straight: The Republican-controlled Ohio House will have final say on a disputed election race, deciding whether the GOP incumbent should remain or be replaced by his Democratic challenger.

To recap, Republican Al Landis last year topped Democrat Joshua O'Farrell by a handful of votes and has been representing all of Tuscarawas County and part of Holmes County for months.

O'Farrell sued, alleging ballots that should have been counted were tossed.

The case made its way to the Ohio Supreme Court, which deferred to the Ohio House under seldom-used provisions in the state constitution.

A select committee will hear arguments in the case, consider evidence already submitted to the court and make a recommendation that will be subject to a vote of the full chamber.

Does anyone not see how this is going to end?

As if GOP members are going to kick one of their own -- and one who gives them a super majority -- out in the cold.

And skip the righteous indignation. Don't think for a minute that Democrats would act differently if they were in the majority and faced a similar situation.

Partisan politics aside, there's a fundamental divide between Statehouse Democrats and Statehouse Republicans on the issue of provisional ballots, which are used when a voter's eligibility is in question.

Democrats want more votes to be counted, whether cast by voters who didn't sign or add other required information to their ballots, who forgot to make sure their registrations were up to date before stated deadlines or who showed up at the wrong precinct on Election Day.

Republicans want incomplete or erroneous ballots deemed void, even if voters' intent is clear, poll-workers directed them to the wrong precinct table or voters neglected to add personal details to a ballot envelope that aren't required under state or federal laws.

The provisional ballot debate has been ongoing for years, and there's no end in sight. Rep. Alicia Reece, a Democrat from Cincinnati, offered an amendment during one session last week on the issue.

"Count the provisional ballots in a uniform process," she said during the floor debate. "Quit penalizing citizens who go to the polls to vote and may have been directed to the wrong table by accident. Let's count those votes."

Reece has offered comparable legislation and amendments numerous times over the past two years; all have been rejected by majority Republicans, including the one submitted last week.

Rep. Matt Huffman, a Republican from Celina who is heading the Landis-O'Farrell select committee, summed up the majority party opposition: "I guess I'm concerned that this type of amendment would essentially shift the burden off of the person, the voter, who has the superior knowledge about their circumstances, about their address, about their name ... all of the other things that need to be known ... . The responsibility should be on the voter. ... Voting is a responsibility in our society, and making sure that you do it clearly and appropriately is the voter's responsibility."

In an ideal world, Republicans and Democrats would negotiate law changes to address this issue.

In the real world, though they talk about bipartisan cooperation and have moved at least one bipartisan election bill this session, state lawmakers have yet to tackle the most contentious of voting-related law changes.

Nobody really thinks the select committee on the 98th House District is going to recommend removing a GOP member from the chamber. Perhaps the hearings will prompt members from both sides of the aisle to finally deal with provisional ballots.

(Marc Kovac is the Dix Capital Bureau Chief. Email him at mkovac@dixcom.com or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.)

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