Saturday, October 2, 2004

Criticisms mount over election chief's decisions

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - First there was controversy over new voting machines. Then Ohio's elections chief was taken to task for his orders about the weight of voter registration cards and what happens if voters go to the wrong poll Nov. 2 in this battleground state.

Before long, Democrats were calling for Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell's resignation.

Voter advocacy groups are paying close attention to how Blackwell runs this year's presidential election, concerned that any misstep could lead to court challenges similar to the contested 2000 vote in Florida.

"I don't know of any other time historically when there was anything comparable to this," said Bob Adams, a Wright State University political analyst. "We're still reacting to Florida and looking for the possibilities it could happen again."

Blackwell called some of the criticism "extreme partisanship gone astray," saying all he did was remind people about pre-existing laws.

"I've been encouraging constructive criticism since February of 2001 when we started to embark on election reform in our state," Blackwell said. "These policies were in place then and we had no criticism, wild-eyed or constructive."

Blackwell, a Republican, had told each of Ohio's 88 counties that registration cards have to be printed on 80-pound stock. His office said the order was meant to prevent lightweight cards from being shredded by postal equipment.

Ray Jacobs, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service, said postcard-sized items that go through automated equipment are required to be at least 75-pound paper stock.

Blackwell clarified on Wednesday that election boards should accept all otherwise valid forms and register voters, then send voters the proper card to fill out for the permanent record.

Boards said they will register voters no matter what kind of paper they use but some said they'll skip the mailing.

Voters could be confused about whether they are registered because of the appearance of shifting positions on the type of paper that must be used, said Kay Maxwell, national president of the League of Women Voters.

"There's plenty of room for confusion and when there's confusion, there's an opportunity for people to be disenfranchised and that's not what any of us want to see happen," Maxwell said Friday.

Blackwell's clarification helped fuel a sense of confusion ahead of Monday's deadline for voters to register, said Ron Bridges, director of governmental affairs for the Ohio AARP office.

"If the problems aren't resolved, the integrity of the election system will be threatened," Bridges said.

The paperweight confusion also caught the attention of the NAACP, which has been concerned about all the issues arising in Ohio over voters' access to the polls.

National NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said Blackwell shouldn't be trying to limit people's ability to vote.

"It's important to point out that Secretary Blackwell was sworn to uphold and defend the constitution, not the Republican Party," Mfume said Friday. "He has a constitutional obligation to try to find a way to increase the ability of people to exercise their rights to vote and not decrease them."

Democrats sued Blackwell on Monday to allow voters to cast ballots at the wrong polling place as long as they are in the right county.

Blackwell had ordered election boards to have poll workers send voters to the right polling place instead of giving them provisional ballots.

Democrats say Blackwell has made too many mistakes too close to the election.

"He needs to recognize that and step down," said state Sen. Teresa Fedor, of Toledo.

Blackwell says criticism from Democrats and voter advocacy groups will make legal challenges a certainty if the vote is close.

"I anticipate there are some who will try to create a situation where lawyers are fussing at each other with a 70-year-old poll worker in between them," Blackwell said.

"American elections are based on the fact that someone has to concede defeat," he said. "What I'm sensing here, with troops of lawyers being hired by both sides, is that no one is going to be in position to concede if it's within a percentage point, and every aspect of the election will be challenged."

Blackwell said the law on casting ballots at the wrong polling place has long been on the books and that Democrats were on a bipartisan committee that found it complied with the 2002 Help America Vote Act.

The way that Ohioans will vote Nov. 2 has been at the center of several legislative and legal battles in the past year.

Over Blackwell's opposition, lawmakers delayed approving contracts for new electronic voting machines and instead appointed a bipartisan panel to investigate security risks. Blackwell originally said he felt the machines were safe, but he eventually told counties considering a switch for this election that they had to wait because of those concerns.

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