By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS - Secretary of State Ken Blackwell wants to spend $15.3 million to teach voters how to use and trust the new electronic voting machines he wants installed across Ohio.
But skeptical lawmakers say Blackwell is wasting tax money on an unbid contract to a New York PR firm and, as a candidate for governor in 2006, using the ad campaign for self-promotion.
"This $15 million of mostly wasteful expenditures benefits him personally," said Sen. Jeff Jacobson, a suburban Dayton Republican on a committee that's taking a new look at Blackwell's plan. "That is an unacceptable use of tax dollars. I think he should withdraw it."
Blackwell says he's done nothing wrong. He said the voter education campaign is necessary and that it's his duty to lead it.
"I'm the chief elections officer. I am going to do my job, and I am going to do it well," Blackwell said. "Now, because I announced that I am going to run for governor, someone expects me not to do my job and hold me to a different standard."
Blackwell's proposed "Help Ohio Vote Campaign" is part of a larger effort to modernize Ohio's voting machinery to prevent a recurrence of the "hanging chad" scandal in Florida that marred the 2000 presidential election.
Blackwell would let county election officials choose among five different types of electronic voting machines that count votes using a computer instead of paper punch cards.
A federal law mandating these reforms would provide the $128 million needed to buy the machines and bankroll the voter education campaign. While voter education is required, the law leaves the cost and scope of the effort to each state's top elections officer.
Blackwell proposes to hire the New York PR firm of Burson-Marsteller to run the campaign. It would feature choreographed public events, a statewide ad blitz, a Web site, and a toll-free information line. The campaign would also spit out 7.8 million pieces of direct mail to Ohio's 7.2 million registered voters.
State Sen. Mark Mallory, D-Cincinnati, a member of a task force on voting systems that helped devise the plan, said county election commissions should be the ones to show voters how to use the new machines.
"I don't know that we need to contract with someone for $15 million to do that," Mallory said.
Why no bidding?
Others question why the contract should go unbid. Richard L. Miller, president of Northlich, a Cincinnati public relations firm, said there are several Ohio firms, including his own, that are capable of running such a statewide campaign.
Northlich won a $60 million, five-year contract to run Ohio's anti-tobacco campaign. The "Stand" campaign includes television and radio ads, a Web site, and public events - similar to the Burson-Marsteller proposal.
"We believe that any taxpayer-funded program should be put up for bid," Miller said. "It helps ensure that taxpayers get the best value and the best work."
Miller said he was aware that the secretary of state was planning a voter education campaign, but he said no one contacted Northlich to make a formal or informal offer. He said he didn't contact the secretary of state to inquire about the campaign, either.
Blackwell said Burson-Marsteller is the best firm for the job, because he was impressed with the work it did for the 2000 U.S. Census. Blackwell served on the Census Monitoring Board.
Burson-Marsteller executives declined to comment, saying it would be inappropriate to talk about a contract that hasn't been approved.
Blackwell said the $15 million cost of the campaign shouldn't raise eyebrows among lawmakers who routinely approve unbid contracts. But on Monday, lawmakers on the state Controlling Board refused to release the money for the voting machines and the campaign.
"The Controlling Board approves hundreds of millions of dollars in unbid contracts," Blackwell said. "I find it curious that a $15 million negotiated contract would generate so much wonderment."
Blackwell is likely to be involved in a tough three-way contest for the GOP nomination for governor in 2006 - with Attorney General Jim Petro and Auditor Betty Montgomery.
Representatives of Petro and Montgomery declined to comment about the voter education campaign.
Jacobson and several other lawmakers say the voter education effort is designed to boost Blackwell's name recognition among voters.
A Democratic critic, Sen. Robert Hagan of Youngstown, said Blackwell is trying to use federal funds to campaign for governor.
"I think everyone knows exactly what he's doing here," Hagan said. "He shouldn't be using $15 million in taxpayer money to push his candidacy for governor."
Blackwell spokesman Carlo LoParo said it's not certain that Blackwell would be the front-and-center spokesman for the voter education effort or that he would appear in ads. The proposed contract identifies Blackwell as "the principal spokesperson to whom the media will look for comment on the campaign."
A fine line
Catherine Turcer, a lobbyist for the watchdog group Ohio Citizen Action, said it's tough to draw the line between public service and campaigning.
"The problem is it can so easily become a way to get your name out there," Turcer said. "I think we always need to be looking and scrutinizing very carefully how we spend this money."
The Controlling Board will take up the issue again during its April 5 meeting.
"I think there will be questions asked about whether this is the time to be spending this kind of money," said Sen. Bill Harris, R-Ashland, the Controlling Board chairman. "I know it's federal money, but there may be a more appropriate place to spend that $15 million than on a comprehensive voter education initiative."
In the meantime, lawmakers on a separate committee will continue to examine questions of voting machine security and record keeping. While those are separate issues, Jacobson said the $15 million may be better spent to upgrade the machines to make them more secure.
Blackwell said all of these issues have already been explored, at length, for years.
He said lawmakers need to remember they've already accepted federal money that can be used only to replace punch-card voting machines.
"We've had more transparency and broad-based participation in this process than any other state government in the nation," Blackwell said. "They really have to make a decision."
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