Ohio prepares for long ballots, long lines

Mark Niquette // Published June 16, 2008 in THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
AWith many Ohio elections officials still haunted by the memory of long lines at the polls in the 2004 presidential election, they are watching the lengthening list of possible state and local issues for the Nov. 4 ballot with growing trepidation.

A long list of issues not only would increase the time it takes voters to cast a ballot when a record turnout is expected, it means higher costs for counties to print and mail absentee ballots, too.

"I think everybody's thinking about it," said Shannon Leininger, president of the Ohio Association of Election Officials.

In addition to the presidential race and other candidates on the Nov. 4 ballot, seven statewide issues are being proposed -- although only three have been approved so far and at least one appears to be a long shot.

Up to eight municipal bond issues might be on the ballot in Columbus, while an income-tax increase might be slated for Westerville, its second-biggest suburb. School levies are a possibility in Franklin County's three largest school districts, including Columbus, and four of the five biggest.

Experts say a lengthy ballot in the 2004 election in areas such as Columbus, which included eight bond issues, combined with huge turnout and a lack of voting machines, contributed to long lines that made national and international news as Ohio wound up deciding the presidential race.

Matthew Damschroder, deputy Franklin County elections director, said this year is different in part because the county now has about 4,500 voting machines compared with about 2,800 in 2004.

The county plans to use research to decide how many voting machines should be allocated to each precinct this fall, then hold a public hearing on the proposal, he said.

Also, since 2004, the state has adopted "no-fault" absentee voting, in which any Ohioan can cast an absentee vote before the election. Officials statewide are pushing absentee voting as a way to ease crowds on Election Day, and Damschroder expects as many as one-third of Franklin County voters will cast ballots early this fall.

Still, an increase in absentee votes means more paper ballots. And at 30 cents a page in Franklin County -- plus the cost to mail the ballot to and from the voter -- the price adds up as the number of pages needed for all the candidates and issues increases.

Paper ballots also are needed for provisional voters on Election Day. And Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner plans to require that Franklin and more than 50 other counties using touch-screen voting machines make paper ballots available for voters who want them.

Damschroder said elections staff members are still calculating the additional cost but he expects the county commissioners will be asked for more funding.

Dayton Legal Blank, which prints ballots for about two-thirds of Ohio counties, is planning for a 260 percent increase in ballots and costs this year compared with 2007, and a 40 percent increase over 2006.

"For some counties, they're really having issues (with the costs)," company president David R. Keeler said.

Brunner noted that the state legislature recently allocated $3 million to help counties pay for mailing costs related to absentee ballots.

Keeler said he's also advocating handing out a booklet explaining the state issues to voters waiting in line to minimize the time needed to cast their ballots, and election officials hope voters study the issues before coming to the polls

State law sets a five-minute limit to vote, but it's rarely if ever enforced, Brunner said.

Dispatch Public Affairs Editor Darrel Rowland contributed to this story.

contact reporter by e-mail mniquette@dispatch.com