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Ohio voting law may be a boon for Obama

/ Source: The Associated Press

Never mind the last days of the presidential campaign. The busiest days for Barack Obama's campaign in this perennial swing state are likely to be a month before Election Day.

Ohio has created a window in the election calendar that would allow residents instant gratification — register one minute, vote the next. It's also given the campaigns of Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain a chance to bank thousands of first-time voters during that Sept. 30 to Oct. 6 window.

The move will benefit Obama, who enjoys a 2-to-1 lead over McCain among 18- to 34-year-olds, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released last month. If Obama's campaign were able to tap into college campuses with one-stop voting, it would add thousands of votes to his tally in a state where, in 2004, John Kerry lost to President Bush by only about 118,000 votes, putting Bush over the top in the electoral count.

Of the more than 470,000 students enrolled in Ohio's public colleges and universities in 2006, the most recent figures available, nine out of 10 were Ohio residents, the state Board of Regents said. To register to vote in Ohio, a person must be a resident of the state for at least 30 days immediately before an election.

Ohio elections officials say they are working out potential kinks, such as questions about whether a vote counts when it is cast or when it's counted. They also are trying to address potential fears of massive voting fraud, and what effect this influx is going to mean on vote security.

Allowing voters to cast their ballots weeks before Election Day is a growing trend. More than a dozen states permit early voting, and more than two dozen provide an absentee ballot to any registered voter for any reason. The battleground states of Colorado, Florida, Nevada and New Mexico allow voters both options.

In Ohio, Republicans are clearly not pleased with same-day registration and voting and have not ruled out a lawsuit against Democratic Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner's office.

"You have to wonder, when they look at what they consider a loophole with such excitement," said Jason Mauk, the Ohio Republican Party's executive director. "That would suggest manipulating the process, and I think opens the door to suspicion."

The voting window, so far, is only being implemented in some counties — typically, urban areas or those with college campuses — leading Republicans to cry foul.

"The prospect of someone coming in with no ID and registering and voting is contrary to every sort of protection that legislators and lawmakers have built into this system for decades," said Kevin DeWine, a Republican lawmaker who is poised to take over the state party after the election. "The processes and the law and the systems in our 88 counties are not equipped to handle same-day registration."

People in Ohio can register without identification, but they have to show some sort of ID to vote.

State lawmakers accidentally made the window before the 2006 elections. Obama's campaign is eager to take advantage of it this year.

"This is one of many ways we'll be encouraging our supporters to skip the lines on Election Day and make sure their vote is cast early," said Isaac Baker, an Obama spokesman.

The move is likely to bring Obama to Ohio for nonstop campaigning that week. Also, television ads are expected to be in heavy play as both campaigns try to take advantage of the electoral oddity. And the early push could help neutralize any last-minute attacks by one campaign on the other.

Outside, independent groups also are looking at spending a lot of time on campuses that week. Organized labor and liberal activist groups see a chance to build their numbers.

Obama, 47, has been attracting a strong following on campuses, something his campaign has aggressively targeted. McCain, 71, has made attempts but has struggled.

Ohio has been a must-win state for presidential candidates during past cycles, but Obama advisers had been weighing a move to skip it. He lost 83 of 88 counties during his fierce primary campaign against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Some Democrats privately fear the map in the general election against McCain will look very similar.

Obama has trailed in support from rural voters and white, working-class voters. He hasn't campaigned in rural areas, despite advice from Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, whose aggressive rural strategy helped him win his job in 2006 and was repeated for Clinton during March's primary.

But Obama advisers now look at Ohio's campuses as a possible way to offset the losses.

It has Ohio Republicans frustrated. Traditionally, young people make a lot of noise about elections and then stay home. If they don't actually have to turn up at the polls on Election Day, then they might take a greater interest.

Mauk said if Brunner doesn't apply the "loophole" in all counties, lawsuits are an option Republicans have to consider.

The secretary of state's spokesman acknowledged the window exists.

"Instructions are being developed and being sent to boards of election across the state to make sure voting is consistent," said Jeff Ortega, Brunner's spokesman.

Its impact is going to be felt in non-presidential races as well. For instance, Ohio State University is the largest college in the country, with more than 52,000 students enrolled on its main campus in Columbus. Democrats are eyeing it as key to helping Mary Jo Kilroy win her House seat to replace Republican Deborah Pryce, who is not seeking re-election.

"There is no question that the huge effort to register and turn out voters at Ohio State University is going to have a positive impact on our race," said Brad Bauman, a spokesman for Kilroy.

Ohio election law for the first time will allow voters to cast a presidential ballot by mail for any reason. In the past, there were specific provisions by which voters could cast a ballot early. But the law was changed; this is the first national general election in which it will be in play.

In 2004, more young people cast ballots than any other time since 18- to 20-year-olds earned the right to vote in 1972. Turnout in 2004 was up 11 percentage points over 2000.

Even so, 47 percent of eligible 18- to 24-year-old voters didn't cast a ballot that year. During 2002's midterm elections, 82 percent of that group said they did not vote.