TOLEDO, Ohio — With the presidential election just one day
away and the race in Ohio as close as ever, grassroots
organizations are working right up until the closing bell to
maximize voter turnout in the northwest part of the state.

In Toledo suburbs, Democrats and Republicans are busy making
thousands of phone calls to known partisans, extracting pledges of
support on Election Day, informing residents of their polling
locations and offering rides to the polls.

Both campaigns say the turnout of their party bases in Ohio
— a critical swing state with 20 electoral votes —
could be the deciding factor in the presidential election.

Lucas County, where Toledo sits, is a key battleground in the
struggle for Ohio. In the 2000 presidential election, former Vice
President Al Gore won this area by a sizeable margin of more than
30,000 votes out of more than 188,000 votes cast. But some
Republicans say a strong showing in Lucas County could clinch the
presidential race in the state. County votes are not awarded on an
all-or-nothing basis as in the Electoral College, so campaigns must
fight for every vote, even in heavily partisan counties.

“Lucas County is probably win-or-lose for us,” said
Mark Bula, a Toledo resident and paid staffer at the Republican
regional office in Maumee. The Republican phone bank, staffed by
volunteers, was buzzing well after business hours on Saturday
evening.

At the same time, volunteers for the Democratic presidential
nominee John Kerry’s campaign were busy calling supporters
from their phone bank in Sylvania, another Toledo suburb.

“Right now Ohio is key,” Kerry volunteer Nathan Zeke
said. “If we take this state, it’s game over for
Bush.”

Both campaigns said they have volunteers going door-to-door to
encourage western Ohio residents to vote. Bula said this election
is the first time the Republicans have conducted a grassroots
campaign of this scope.

“Have we taken a page out of the Democratic strategy?
Probably. They’ve done a really good job of getting out the
vote in their strongholds, and we need to do that,” he said.
“We have a chance to establish a stronghold in northwest
Ohio.”

Ohio’s large number of electoral votes and outdated
punch-card ballots have led some to compare the Midwestern state to
Florida in the 2000 election.

If the number of rejected ballots exceeds the margin between
Bush and Kerry’s votes, and the outcome of the election
hinges on Ohio’s electoral votes, Americans may have to
endure a repeat of the Florida recount debacle of 2004.

Ohio typically plays a crucial role in the outcome of the
presidential election. Only two presidents have won the White House
without winning Ohio in the past century.

“This will probably be the Florida of 2004,” said
Greg Hodur, a North Dakota lawyer who is working with the Kerry
campaign to inform Ohioans of their rights and monitor polls.
“It’s almost inevitable that both sides will challenge
the results,” he added.

Legal challenges over the state’s punch-card ballots
— used in a majority of Ohio counties — have already
arisen. The punch cards are more error-prone than other ballots
such as the optical scan machines that most Michigan counties
use.

The American Civil Liberties Union has challenged the
constitutionality of the punch-card system, arguing that the fact
that black voters live predominantly in counties using the punch
cards, and that more of their votes may consequently be rejected,
is a violation of the principle of “one man, one
vote.”

“We certainly think that some of the minority communities
have been targeted,” Hodur said.

A court hearing on the matter is scheduled for today.

Another legal battle may be fought over provisional ballots,
which are cast by voters whose names don’t appear on precinct
rolls. A U.S. appellate court earlier this month upheld Ohio
Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell’s decision to not count
provisional ballots cast outside a voter’s precinct, even if
they are submitted in the proper city or township. The Democrats,
who say Blackwell’s order discriminates against poor and
minority voters because they move more often, have not appealed the
ruling but could do so after tomorrow’s election.

The country will have to wait for more than a week to find out
who its next president will be if Ohio becomes the deciding factor
in the election and the number of provisional ballots is greater
than the margin between Bush and Kerry in the state. Under Ohio
law, election officials cannot begin counting provisional ballots
earlier than November 13.

State Republicans have challenged the validity of thousands of
voter registrations submitted by Democrats. A federal appellate
court ruled Friday that the registrations would not be reviewed,
but Republicans could still appeal this decision.

Democrats have sued over the authority of Republican lawyers to
challenge votes in polling sites across the state.

All these controversies provide ample legal grounds on which
either camp can contest the outcome of tomorrow’s
election.

Still, volunteers who have come to Ohio hope to avoid costly
legal battles by turning out supporters at the polls.

One of these volunteers is James Weiss, an Episcopal priest and
theology professor at Boston College.

“The East Coast has heard John Kerry’s message loud
and clear. Kerry’s message needs to be heard more clearly in
Ohio,” Weiss said. “I’ve never been aware of an
election that has generated this much crossing of state
lines.”

Chicago resident David Shiba said he took five days off from
work to volunteer for Bush’s campaign in northwest Ohio. He
said he made nearly 1,000 calls in two days.

“Illinois in not a close race,” Shiba said. “I
wanted to go wherever I could make a difference, and that’s
Ohio.”

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