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Small check-box, big dust-up in OH

From NBC/NJ's Carrie Dann
Pair the phrases "controversy" and "Ohio Secretary of State," and folks are bound to get antsy. 

That's what erupted today, after some absentee ballot forms - distributed to Buckeye State residents by the McCain campaign - were deemed incomplete by Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner.

The problem? At the top of the McCain-issued absentee ballot application, above lines where voters write their address and other identifying information to verify their voting eligibility, a statement reads: "I am a qualified elector and would like to receive an Absentee Ballot for the November 4, 2008 General Election."  Next to the statement is a small checkbox. 

Many applicants who filled out and returned the forms forgot to – or didn't realize that they were supposed to - check that box.

Yesterday, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner deemed applications with unchecked boxes unacceptable, sparking accusations that she was disenfranchising Republican voters by taking a particularly stringent stance.  Saying that the McCain camp issued "confusing" forms, Brunner today insisted that state law "provides absolutely no room to accept forms if the voter has not taken the step of affirming that he or she is an eligible voter."

A form almost identical to the McCain application was used by Ohio Republicans during registration for a 2007 special election. No complaints were lodged at that time. 

The McCain campaign mailed over a million of the applications last week. A Republican aide estimates that the number of affected registrations will be "in the thousands."

In a press conference today, Brunner stood by the assessment that forms with unchecked boxes would not be processed, but she invited county election boards to submit the incomplete forms to her office, which will then contact applicants who failed to check the appropriate box.  Voters will be informed of the mix-up by phone, reissued a new form, and also directed to a website where they can electronically confirm their status as eligible voters. 

"Even though a campaign's confusing form has kept some Ohio voters from following Ohio election law, I am working with boards of elections to make sure every eligible voter gets to vote," said Brunner in a statement issued this evening. "Ohio law is crystal clear on the strict requirements to receive an absentee ballot.  Ignoring that law could lead to voter fraud in such a high-turnout election."

Team McCain isn't satisfied with Brunner's decision, which adds an extra step to the process and could confuse applicants who believe that they have already filled the form out correctly. 

"There is no reason to reject a form that includes all necessary legal requirements," said Jon Seaton, McCain's regional campaign manager in the state. "Our position has not changed – qualified electors who request an absentee ballot should not be disenfranchised."