Friday, October 22, 2004

Defiant Blackwell rips judge


Secretary says he'd go to jail before rewriting ballot memo

By Gregory Korte
and Jim Siegel
Enquirer staff writers

MIAMI TOWNSHIP - Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell said Thursday that he would rather go to jail than rewrite his guidelines on out-of-precinct voters - even when ordered to by a federal judge.

"Some of the best writing in history has been done from jail," Blackwell said, invoking the names of Mohandas K. Gandhi, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the apostle Paul. "I wasn't going to write a directive that I believe violates Ohio law."

Blackwell made the comments in a breakfast speech to the Loveland Area Chamber of Commerce in Clermont County. Asked afterward whether he was exaggerating for effect, Blackwell said his critics "underestimate what I'm prepared to do" to ensure a fair election under Ohio law.

The Cincinnati Republican, in his second term as secretary of state and pondering a 2006 run for governor, has come under fire from Democrats who accuse him of trying to suppress turnout by issuing directives restricting where people can vote Nov. 2.

"Many civil rights leaders went to jail to defend the right to vote. If this official wants to go to jail to thwart it, that would be unfortunate," said Myron Marlin, a spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Party's Voter Protection Program.

Wednesday, as part of a lawsuit brought by Democrats, a federal judge in Toledo rewrote a Blackwell directive on so-called "provisional" ballots. U.S. District Judge James G. Carr ordered that election workers in Ohio allow residents of a county to cast a presidential vote in any precinct in that county, regardless of where they live.

He cited the 2002 Help America Vote Act, a reform that came out of the chaotic post-election vote counting in Florida that decided the 2000 presidential election.

Blackwell wants Ohio to follow the longstanding precinct-based system requiring voters to vote where they live.

Judge rejects new directive

At first, the judge ordered Blackwell to write a new directive himself. Blackwell's new directive said no one should be denied the opportunity to vote and ordered local election workers to make "all efforts" to direct lost voters to their proper polling places "in order for his or her vote to be counted."

But Carr said the new directive was "every bit as much in violation" of federal law as the first, and accused Blackwell Wednesday of seeking "to accomplish the same result in Ohio in 2004 that occurred in Florida in 2000." Carr then wrote his own directive, ordering, "No person will be denied the opportunity to cast a provisional ballot because he or she does not reside in the precinct in which he or she wishes to vote."

Blackwell appealing order

Blackwell is appealing to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. He complained Thursday that he couldn't get a hearing in front of Judge Carr because the judge was vacationing in Florida when he wrote the decision. And he repeatedly accused Carr, a nominee of Democrat President Clinton, of "legislating from the beach."

"Over the last 24 hours, he's ordered me to let him run elections in Ohio - from a beach in Florida," he said. He later said Carr was attempting to appoint himself "co-secretary of state."

A law clerk to Judge Carr said only that he had no interest in what Blackwell had to say. He then hung up on a reporter.

Issue could delay results

Both sides see the question of provisional ballots as potentially decisive in the outcome of the election. Ohio Gov. Bob Taft said Thursday that Ohio election results could remain unknown for "many days" after Nov. 2, because of the controversy.

Taft, who preceded Blackwell as Ohio's chief elections officer prior 1998, told an audience of students at Ohio State University's law school that a federal appeals court must act quickly to settle the dispute.

"There's a possibility the uncertainty could disenfranchise some voters and result in lengthy post-election litigation," Taft said.

In 2000, Ohioans cast 98,500 provisional ballots - traditionally given to voters whose names do not appear on election rolls because of a late change of address or election board error. Taft thinks that the number could jump above 100,000, straining county election officials who must hold the ballots for 10 days while verifying eligibility.

E-mail gkorte@enquirer.com.




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