Enquirer News Update   -   Updated 6:40 p.m.

Petro: Don't ban challengers from poll sites

By Jim Siegel
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro is refusing to issue a recommendation by Secretary of State Ken Blackwell that would tell a pair of federal courts to exclude all challengers from Ohio polling sites.

"Neither the Secretary of State nor I can negotiate away the legal rights of Ohio's citizens," Petro said in a written statement. "Thus, I cannot submit to the federal courts the secretary's unlawful proposal to ban all challengers for all parties, candidates or issues on Election Day."

Defying the Ohio Republican Party, Blackwell today asked Petro to recommend to federal courts in Hamilton and Summit counties that all challengers be excluded from Ohio polling sites.

State Republicans have argued that challengers are necessary to ensure that the thousands of newly registered voters are legitimate. Party officials have said they targeted precincts where the highest concentration of new voters is located.

But with the election just days away, the issue of placing party operatives inside polling sites to potentially challenge voters' eligibility is tied up in court.

Democrats fear potential confrontations with challengers at the polling sites, or unnecessary delays as challenged voters are forced to answer a series of questions before casting a ballot.

Civil-rights activists Marian and Donald Spencer of Avondale alleged in a federal lawsuit that the 51-year-old law disenfranchises black voters. Democrats argued Republicans were targeting predominantly black precincts with their decisions on where to place poll challengers.

In Summit County, Democrats argued the law is unconstitutional because it does not give a disqualified voter a chance to appeal in time to cast a ballot.

Blackwell, a Republican, said that, while he does not believe the law intends any discrimination, he also believes there is not enough time to settle the matter.

"Following the election, I will institute litigation bringing together all parties to resolve the statutory and constitutional issues so they may be fully litigated and determined once and for all," Blackwell said.

But while Blackwell, as Ohio's chief elections officer, can make the recommendation, only Petro, as the state's lawyer, can carry it out.

Petro said he took no stance on whether challengers are good or bad.

"However, until the law is finally declared to be unconstitutional, it is a valid law granting Ohio's citizens the right to be challengers if they have followed the proper procedure to do so," he said.

Blackwell's announcement came a few hours after a federal appeals court upheld a court order barring Ohio's Republican Party from challenging the validity of 23,000 new voter registrations.

In Hamilton County, Republicans named challengers to 629 county precincts and Democrats to 557 precincts.

Republicans also submitted a list of 251 other precincts where they may put challengers. Of those, county Democratic Party Chairman Tim Burke said 250 are majority-black precincts.