Saturday, October 30, 2004
Election protests thwarted
Federal judges reject Republican challenges
By Dan Horn and Jim Siegel
Enquirer staff writers
Ohio Republicans lost their bid Friday to challenge the legitimacy of 23,000 newly registered voters before Election Day.
But now, the fight shifts to challenges that could be lodged in polling precincts on Election Day.
As for the pre-election protests, a federal appeals court in Cincinnati upheld a lower court's ban on the Republican challenges, effectively ending the GOP's attempt to review voter registrations that party officials claim may be fraudulent.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled it would be difficult, if not impossible, for county boards of elections to conduct thousands of hearings on the challenges in the few days remaining before Tuesday's election.
Hours after the appeals court ruling, U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott in Cincinnati ordered the cancellation of all such hearings across the state.
"We're going to have consistency," Dlott said. "I intend to have uniformity in the state of Ohio."
Dlott's order came as Republicans and Democrats continued to wage a pitched legal battle Friday over who should be allowed to vote Tuesday.
The fight raged from the Statehouse in Columbus to the federal courthouse in Cincinnati as party officials argued with their opponents - and sometimes with each other - about the best way to conduct the election.
The outcome could affect several local races and a too-close-to-call presidential contest that hinges on swing states such as Ohio.
After the appeals court upheld the ban on the GOP's pre-election challenges, the focus of the battle shifted to challenges that could be made on Election Day.
Two cases - one in Hamilton County and another in northern Ohio's Summit County - raise the issue of whether it is fair for political parties to send witnesses, or challengers, to polling places.
In both counties, Republicans are seeking to send hundreds of challengers to polling places on Election Day and Democrats are attacking their right to do so.
Ohio law allows the challengers as a way to double check voter registration, although neither party has used them before this year.
The Democrats found an unlikely ally Friday when Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, a Republican, split with his party and said he would not support posting Republican or Democratic challengers in polling places. He said poll workers - one from each party - are sufficient protection against voter fraud and warned that the challengers could create confusion.
"The court can reach the conclusion that ... this second tier of challengers is just more furniture in the room that could convert the polling places into romper rooms," Blackwell said.
Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro, also a Republican, promptly rejected Blackwell's request to exclude the challengers, saying it would be illegal to do so.
He said he took no stance on whether the challengers are good or bad, only that they have a right to be in polling places.
"Neither the secretary of state nor I can negotiate away the legal rights of Ohio citizens," Petro said.
Republicans in Hamilton County say the challengers are needed to guard against voter fraud in hundreds of precincts. But civil-rights activists in Cincinnati have asked Judge Dlott to bar the challengers, arguing the GOP is targeting predominantly black precincts in an effort to intimidate voters likely to cast ballots for Democrats.
Marian Spencer, an 84-year-old activist and former Cincinnati councilwoman, said she filed the lawsuit because she feared the challengers would scare off voters.
"I would like to see everyone get the same opportunity to have access without fear," Spencer said. "I'm wondering about the new voter who, for the first time, is exercising his franchise or her franchise to vote and wonders why they are being singled out."
Dlott heard evidence in the Hamilton County case Friday but did not make a decision. The case resumes Sunday evening.
A sociologist from the University of Cincinnati testified that demographic data show a disproportionate number of GOP challengers would be placed in black precincts. David Maume said his analysis found that 77 percent of black voters would encounter a GOP challenger on Election Day, compared with 25 percent of white voters.
There is "a clear correlation between a voting population that is black and the placement of Republican challengers," Maume said.
Republican officials said the Summit County case is likely to have a more sweeping impact because it attacks the entire challenger system, not just the issue of whether it is discriminatory.
"We're watching and waiting to see what the courts say the rules are," said Mark Weaver, an attorney and consultant for the Ohio Republican Party. "We don't want any election fraud. But we're going to abide by the rules."
The U.S. Department of Justice sent Dlott a memorandum Friday stating that federal law does not bar challengers from observing at polling places and pointing out potential fraud if they see it.
Democrats, though, condemned the GOP challengers, and the attempted pre-election challenges, as "dirty tricks" intended to disenfranchise thousands of eligible voters.
They praised Dlott's decision on the pre-election challenges and urged her to reject the Election Day challengers, too.
"Today's ruling is further proof that the Republican voter-suppression effort is illegal and is backfiring," said David Sullivan, the Democrats' voter protection coordinator in Ohio.
In court Friday, Democratic officials testified that several counties had begun hearings on challenges to voter registration this week. They complained that those challenging the registrations had little or no evidence to support their claim, other than that the voter's registration card had been deemed "undeliverable" when mailed to their listed address.
In Summit County, elections officials threw out all 976 challenges after the challengers failed to provide evidence.
"People were outraged," said Wayne Jones, a Democrat and member of the Summit County Board of Elections. "They felt it was a travesty. People were very upset."
Warren County elections officials were the only ones in Greater Cincinnati to hold hearings this week, but they rejected all 23 of their challenges. The GOP withdrew about 5,000 challenges in Hamilton County last week after discovering errors.
Dlott is considering whether to reinstate eligibility for any voters who were removed from the rolls in the past week, but she did not decide that issue Friday.
The battle of Ohio in federal court
Two legal battles are being waged in federal court in Cincinnati over Tuesday's election:
Enquirer reporters Gregory Korte, Erica Solvig and Cindi Andrews contributed to this report.