By Gregory Korte
Enquirer staff writer
The federal courthouse in Cincinnati is center stage for two nationally watched pre-election battles over who has the right to vote - and whether a political party has the right to challenge potential voters at the polls on Election Day.
Both sides said the two separate but related court cases, both being heard by U.S. District Judge Susan K. Dlott, could determine the winner of Ohio's 20 electoral votes.
At issue in one case is whether the Ohio Republican Party may challenge, before Election Day, 23,000 newly registered voters who appear to have invalid addresses.
Judge Dlott already has issued a temporary order blocking six Ohio boards of elections from hearing the challenges.
But Thursday, her decision was appealed to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, also based in Cincinnati, by the Franklin County Board of Elections, Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro and two Republican voters. Dlott plans another hearing today.
In the other case, Judge Dlott heard testimony Thursday on whether the Republican Party may place Election Day "challengers'' at the polls under Ohio election law.
The plaintiffs, longtime Cincinnati civil rights leaders Marian and Donald Spencer, said the party has targeted predominantly African-American precincts, an allegation the party denies.
The hearing continues today.
The double-barreled attack on Republican efforts to combat alleged voter fraud is the latest in a round of pre-election litigation rivaled only by Florida's post-election lawsuits of 2000.
Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, the Cincinnati Republican who is Ohio's chief elections officer, has been the defendant in all the significant lawsuits.
It was the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals that came down on Blackwell's side Saturday night, when it upheld the state's precinct-based system of voting.
The decision, which the Democrats decided not to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, means that so-called "provisional" ballots cast in the wrong precinct will not count.
In fact, Blackwell noted in a spirited interview on CNN's Inside Politics Thursday that he's batting "5-for-5" when it comes to court challenges of his decisions.
State and federal courts have upheld his decisions on provisional balloting, excluding independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader from the Ohio ballot, allowing a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage on the ballot and two decisions requiring some newly registered voters to provide identification at the polls.
"This is a robust, very competitive campaign, and it's also very obvious to me that both sides are preparing themselves not to concede defeat until the last dog dies," Blackwell said on CNN.
But even as Blackwell defended his decisions nationally, a national figure was in Cincinnati to attack Republican "vote manipulation schemes" - and Blackwell personally.
"Some of us marched behind the caskets of martyrs. Some of us went to jail for the right to vote," the Rev. Jesse Jackson said at the Corryville Recreation Center Thursday. "Others of us will go to jail to intimidate and make voting more difficult."
Jackson was referring to Blackwell's statement in Loveland last week that he would rather be held in contempt by a federal judge than knowingly violate Ohio election laws.
Democrats have been pushing for liberal interpretations of Ohio's election laws in order to ensure that the state's 800,000 new voters - many registered by Democratic-allied "get-out-the-vote" groups - can vote on Election Day.
"The Kerry-Edwards campaign's single-minded, almost maniacal interest in this is to make sure every eligible citizen can vote and that every vote is counted," said Daniel J. Hoffheimer, the Cincinnati lawyer who is the state legal counsel for the Kerry-Edwards campaign.
Republican lawyers said they wanted nothing different.
"I know the Democrats would like to spin this as something else, but we want a fair election. We want every valid vote to count, and we don't want a single fraudulent vote to count," said Mark R. Weaver, a lawyer for the Ohio Republican Party.
The party plans to place 3,600 challengers at polling places Tuesday. Weaver said most Republican challengers would simply sit behind a table and watch.
"Most voters won't even notice them," he said.
The pre-election litigation had an air of intrigue Thursday, as several of the prominent players have deep Cincinnati connections.
Spencer, the plaintiff in the case over Election Day challengers, served on Cincinnati City Council with Blackwell from 1983 to 1985. Testifying on her behalf was Hamilton County Board of Elections Chairman Timothy M. Burke, who served in student government with Blackwell at Xavier University in the 1960s.
Both cases are being heard back to back by Judge Dlott, the federal judge best known to Cincinnatians for presiding over the class-action lawsuit on alleged racial profiling by Cincinnati police. Her court order subjected Cincinnati police to federal supervision through at least 2007.
Dlott was nominated to the bench by President Clinton. She is the wife of noted class-action lawyer Stanley Chesley, a prominent contributor to Democratic campaigns.
She suggested from the bench Thursday that she could continue to hear evidence on one or both cases through Saturday - just three days before the election.
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