In Ohio, a Debate Over Problems Voters Could Face at the Polls

Groups highlight voting problems in Ohio. The Ohio Secretary of State says elections will be free and fair.

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Voters wait in line to pick up their ballots inside the Hamilton County Board of Elections after it opened for early voting in Cincinnati.

As the polls open in the all important swing state of Ohio, some watchdog groups are worried voters will see tactics intended to suppress their vote, including registration problems, poor voting place organization and aggressive poll watchers.

"The system is broken," Penda Hair, co-director of the civil rights group the Advancement Project, told reporters at a breakfast recently after discussing possible irregularities in Ohio.

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But state election chief Jon Husted, who held a briefing in Ohio Monday night to address concerns, says Ohioans should be able to cast their votes without issues.

"In no way is there an effort to suppress or disenfranchise voters," Husted spokesman Matt McClellan told Whispers Monday.

Below, the four issues watchdog groups are worried voters may face, and why the other side says there is no reason to fret.

1. Long lines

Secretary of State Husted ensured that early voting hours were shortened in Ohio in the three days leading up to Election Day, saying a federal court decision to impose early voting on states was an "un-American approach to voting." The move prompted groups like Election Protection, a coalition of law firms, to worry there would be longer lines in many counties Tuesday. The Huffington Post reports that many of the long lines over the weekend in Ohio were in Democratic strongholds in Cleveland and Columbus, "and a good deal of the voters in line were African-American."

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Watchdog groups worry that such inconveniences will make it more difficult for blacks to vote. Election Protection co-leader Eric Marshall says he is "particularly" concerned about long lines in more "heavily concentrated urban areas" in Ohio like Cuyahoga County, where blacks make up 30 percent of the population.

But Ohio government spokesman McClellan told CNN a significant number of Ohioans got their vote in early despite the shorter hours. Some 1.6 million of Ohio's 7.9 million registered voters had voted by Friday alone, he said.

2. New voter responsibilities

A new and controversial directive from Husted says that the burden of error while filling out provisional ballots rests on the voter, not the poll worker, according to the Associated Press. A provisional ballot is a ballot that is used when there is a question about the identification of a voter. An incorrectly filled out form will not be counted, Husted has said.

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"We think it's the government's role to help all Americans who want to vote, vote," says Marshall. "So issuing directives that limit the ability of poll workers to help people vote is really undemocratic." A petition on SignOn.org to get rid of the directive now has 60,000 signatures.

But Husted's office says the change is pragmatic. "The secretary is taking the position that this really comes down to who should give this [personal] information... and that that likely would be the voter," says McClellan.

The debate over this directive will continue if results in Ohio are close and provisional ballots need to be counted.

3. Poll watchers

Civil rights groups are worried that poll watchers, or those who observe voting procedures, will be more aggressive to voters this election than they will be helpful. Elections expert Doug Chapin of the University of Minnesota recently told the Columbus Dispatch that aggression from poll watchers could result in "chaos" in Ohio.

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But True The Vote, which is organizing thousands of poll watchers for the election (including in Ohio) and which Chapin singled out as particularly problematic, says they are working to ensure "a fair and legal electoral process" and that their efforts are intended to stamp out voter fraud, not create more problems.

4. Broad confusion with voter ID

Though Ohio has not had the same voter ID battles other states have, Election Protection believes there may still be confusion around voter IDs Tuesday. Ohio law says that if voters provide a photo ID, a matching address isn't necessary. But Marshall says election officials often mistakenly ask for a photo ID with an address anyway, which causes problems for many students.

McClellan maintains efforts by election officials to check voter IDs are designed to "simplify and streamline the process." No issues have been reported around voter IDs in Ohio so far.

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  • Elizabeth Flock is a staff writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook or reach her at eflock@usnews.com.