Saturday, June 12, 2004

Counties want voters protected

Potential for electioneering at polls spurs debate

By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A statewide vote on same-sex marriages, a divided electorate and uncertainty over Kentucky electioneering laws are prompting some counties to look at ways to keep voters from being hounded by aggressive campaigners at the polls this fall.

Kenton County Fiscal Court is considering legislation that would ban electioneering, or active campaigning, within 300 feet of a polling place. It is modeled after similar measures in Leslie and Fayette counties.

When the Kentucky Association of County Clerks holds its semi-annual meeting in Covington next week, that group is expected to ask the governor to submit a statewide electioneering law to the General Assembly if he calls a special session to pass a state budget. Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson supports those efforts.

"We would ask the governor to include that ... if we can get agreement on the language between all parties involved," said Les Fugate, Grayson's spokesman.

If no special session is called, the bill would be presented in next year's legislative session.

When Kentuckians go to the polls this November, voters will consider a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriages and deny legal recognition of civil unions.

"Regardless of what your stance is, it's going to be an emotional issue," said Kenton County Clerk Bill Aylor. "And it's not just that. The country is so polarized right now. I just think it's common sense to ban campaigning near the polls. If you haven't convinced people to vote for you by the time you go to the polls, I think it's too late."

Fayette County Clerk Don Blevins agreed.

"We're expecting this fall's election to be close like the one in 2000," Blevins said. "Largely because of the problems that occurred in Florida, it's gotten all kinds of scrutiny. We're mindful that we need to do everything we can in Kentucky so that we're not held up as the next Florida."

One month after Kentucky's electioneering laws were ruled unconstitutional, Blevins saw firsthand just how upsetting electioneering could be. During a Feb. 17 special election to fill a Congressional seat, members of the Kentucky Fairness Alliance, a gay rights group, canvassed Fayette County voters on their attitudes toward the same-sex marriage amendment.

"Voters said if they said they opposed the (pollsters') viewpoint, they tried to debate them," Blevins said. "My switchboard was swamped with callers complaining about electioneering. Within a short period of time, we logged 30 written complaints. We had to give up keeping track of them because they were coming so fast."

Although representatives of the Kentucky Fairness Alliance did not consider their actions electioneering, they left the precincts when sheriff's deputies arrived, Blevins said.

As a young voter 36 years ago, Aylor recalls "being accosted by 20 people" when he walked the alley behind Pettibone's Garage in Ludlow to cast his vote.

Campbell County Clerk Jack Snodgrass also recalls "running a gauntlet between people handing out pencils and combs and half-pints of whisky" when he first voted in Bellevue in the mid-'60s.

"You have to weigh your right of free speech with my right to vote without being harassed," Aylor said.



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