Friday, November 5, 2004

Warren's vote tally walled off

Alone in Ohio, officials cited homeland security

By Erica Solvig
Enquirer staff writer

LEBANON - Citing concerns about potential terrorism, Warren County officials locked down the county administration building on election night and blocked anyone from observing the vote count as the nation awaited Ohio's returns.

County officials say they took the action Tuesday night for homeland security, although state elections officials said they didn't know of any other Ohio county that closed off its elections board. Media organizations protested, saying it violated the law and the public's rights. The Warren results, delayed for hours because of long lines that extended voting past the scheduled close of polls, were part of the last tallies that helped clinch President Bush's re-election.

"The media should have been permitted into the area where there was counting," Enquirer attorney Jack Greiner said. "This is a process that should be done in complete transparency and it wasn't."

Warren County Emergency Services Director Frank Young said he had recommended increased security based on information received from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in recent weeks.

Commissioners made the security decisions in a closed-door meeting last week, but didn't publicize the restrictions that were made until after polls closed.

"If we were going to make a judgment, we wanted to err on the side of caution," Commissioner Pat South said Thursday. "... Hindsight is 20-20. There was never any intent to exclude the press.

"We were trying to protect security."

WCPO-TV (Channel 9) News Director Bob Morford said he's "never seen anything like it." When he first heard about Warren County's building restrictions, he said he understood concerns that too many people could make the counting process "a circus." But he said it's never been a problem in the past, and that the county could have set up a security checkpoint and had people show identification.

"Frankly, we consider that a red herring," Morford said of the county's "homeland security" reason. "That's something that's put up when you don't know what else to put up to keep us out."

James Lee, spokesman with the Ohio Secretary of State's Office in Columbus, said Thursday he hasn't heard of any situations similar to Warren County's building restrictions. He said general security concerns are decided at the local levels.

Other counties, such as Butler County, let people watch ballot checkers through a window.

Typically, the Warren County commissioners' room is set up as a gathering place for people to watch the votes come in. But that wasn't done this year.

And despite being told that there would be an area with telephones set up for the media, those who tried to get into the building on Justice Drive were stopped by a county employee who stood guard outside. After journalists challenged the restriction, reporters were allowed into the building's lobby - two floors below the elections office.

A representative of The Associated Press, which had stringers at every Ohio board of elections site, said no such election-night access problems were reported outside of Warren County.

County Prosecutor Rachel Hutzel said commissioners "were within their rights" to restrict building access.

Having reporters and photographers around could have interfered with the count, she said.


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