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

Ruling on challengers could come
tomorrow morning

By Cindi Andrews
Enquirer staff writer

U.S. District Judge Susan K. Dlott could rule Monday morning in a lawsuit seeking to remove challengers from polling places on the grounds that Republicans discriminated against African-Americans by naming challengers to predominately black precincts.

Dlott held a highly unusual Sunday night court hearing to try to untangle the issue as President Bush rallied followers blocks away just 36 hours before the polls are to open.

The case was brought by Marian and Donald Spencer of Avondale, but their attorney asked in an unusual Sunday night court meeting that challengers be banned statewide.

It's one of several cases that attempts to curb Republicans' challenges of voters on Tuesday. Democrats have accused Republicans of trying to disenfranchise some voters, but Republicans say they just want to ensure voter fraud doesn't occur.

Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell recommended Friday that challengers be banned, and he is Ohio's top elections official, noted Al Gerhardstein, the Spencers' attorney.

"Nobody should trump him," Gerhardstein said.

Blackwell's office is a defendant in the lawsuit, and his announcement was a surprise. Attorney General Jim Petro took over the state's defense of the suit, which also names the Hamilton County Board of Elections and county GOP Chairman Michael Barrett as defendants.

Challengers are allowed under Ohio election law but have never before been deployed on a widespread basis. Republicans and Democrats have assigned more than 1,000 challengers to Hamilton County precincts on Election Day.

Challengers can question a person's identity, age, residency or citizenship before he or she receives a ballot. Those who are challenged must be questioned by the precinct's presiding judge. If their eligibility to vote is in doubt, their vote will be considered provisional pending a final decision by election officials.

The Spencers' suit alleges that Republicans are using a law rooted in a blatantly racist statute that emerged from the Civil War. They say Republicans are targeting mostly African-American precincts.

County Democratic Co-chairman Tim Burke testified last week that most of the 251 precincts specifically targeted by Republicans have predominately black voters.

Barrett, on the other hand, said Republicans were targeting precincts that strongly supported Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore in 2000.

In another case heard by Dlott last week, she rejected Republican attempts to pre-emptively challenge some 35,000 new registered voters across Ohio. The challenges targeting voters with undeliverable mailing addresses would have required hearings before Election Day.

In a ruling Saturday in another challenger-related case, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge John O'Donnell ruled Saturday that each political party may field only one challenger at each Ohio polling place on Election Day.

O'Donnell ordered Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell to instruct elections boards in all 88 counties to allow only one challenger per party per polling place.

Spokesman Carlo LoParo said Saturday night that Blackwell would comply with O'Donnell's order but that rulings by federal courts in Ohio would likely supersede it.

The San Francisco-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights on Friday filed a lawsuit claiming Blackwell's directive allowing political parties to send a challenger to each precinct was unfair. In polling places with multiple precincts, that would create "gangs" of challengers that could intimidate voters, according to the lawsuit on behalf of a Cuyahoga County voter.

On Friday, Blackwell told State Attorney General Jim Petro to recommend that federal judges exclude voting challengers allowed under Ohio law from polling places Tuesday.

"Political parties are adequately represented at polling places by bipartisan poll workers who are the best protection against fraud and who are there to answer questions on Election Day," LoParo said Saturday night.

Petro refused Blackwell's request on Friday, saying it was illegal. Petro said in a statement that he couldn't negotiate away the legal rights of Ohio citizens. A message was left seeking comment on the cell phone and home phone of a Petro spokeswoman Saturday night.

Other pending legal action over challengers:

• In Akron, the Summit County Democratic Party has sued the state to try to block the witnesses, claiming the law allowing registration challenges is unconstitutional because it does not give a disqualified voter a chance to appeal in time to cast a ballot. A ruling is expected before Election Day.

• A judge in New Jersey could also rule on whether the poll challenges contemplated in Ohio should be outlawed nationally.

An Ohio woman had asked the judge in New Jersey to intervene in Ohio over the dispute by Republicans to challenges of registered voters. The judge brokered a 1981 agreement in a similar case in New Jersey involving Republican voter challenges in areas with heavy minority concentrations.

The Associated Press contributed.

E-mail candrews@enquirer.com