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Ohio Court Limits 'Challengers' at Polling Stations

Judge rules that parties may send only one operative to each site, undermining GOP plans to aggressively inspect voter credentials.

October 31, 2004|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

CINCINNATI — A state court judge issued a sweeping order Saturday limiting the number of party representatives that could be deployed to challenge voters at Ohio polling places on election day.

In Cleveland, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge John P. O'Donnell issued a permanent injunction barring multiple challengers from being stationed at polling places. The ruling, if upheld, would force the Republicans to cut back the thousands of poll watchers they plan to send to voting locations Tuesday.

Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, a Republican, had issued a directive allowing each party to station one challenger for each precinct. Since polling places often represent several precincts, several challengers could have shown up in one location. Under O'Donnell's ruling, only one challenger from each party will be allowed in a polling place.

The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, based in San Francisco, filed suit Friday on behalf of voters who were concerned that an army of challengers would discourage voters, particularly African Americans, from casting their ballots.

The ruling leaves unresolved broader questions about the constitutionality of Ohio's electoral challenge procedure, which could be decided by cases pending in federal courts in Cincinnati and Akron.

The Ohio Republican Party has promised to aggressively challenge the qualifications of voters because it says that many are fraudulently registered. The GOP had registered more than 3,600 people as "challengers" for Tuesday's election.

Local election officials sought clarification on procedures from Blackwell in anticipation of legal challenges.

On Tuesday, Blackwell issued a directive saying that county election boards could allot challengers "on either a precinct or polling place basis."

In his ruling Saturday night, O'Donnell said Blackwell had "acted arbitrarily, unreasonably and unconscionably and has shown a clear disregard"' for the Ohio statutes governing the use of challengers at polling places. He ordered Blackwell to inform county officials of the ruling by 8 tonight.

He said failure to comply with the order could subject the affected officials to fines or jail time.

A challenger can contest a person's right to vote if the prospective voter is not: a citizen; at least 18 years old; voting in the county where he or she lives, or a resident of the state for at least 30 consecutive days before the vote.

If a challenge is lodged at the polling place, then poll workers -- two Democrats and two Republicans, with one designated "judge" of the polling place -- ask the voter a series of questions to determine whether he or she is entitled to vote.

The Democratic Party has consistently said that its challengers would take on the role in name only and that they would not try to bar anyone from voting.

They said they would focus instead on ensuring that no one was illegitimately deprived of the right to vote.

"We'll be watching the watchers," said Timothy M. Burke, co-chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party in Cincinnati.

San Francisco attorney Robert Rubin of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights was "elated at the judge's decision" because it would reduce voter intimidation and the number of challenges citizens would have to confront.

It was unclear if the state planned to appeal the ruling. Neither Blackwell nor Atty. Gen. Jim Petro, whose office defended the lawyers' committee suit, had immediate comment. Mark R. Weaver, a lawyer for the Ohio Republican Party, said he believed the order could increase voter fraud.

"In some voting locations, there are as many as 15 different precincts, 15 voting areas," Weaver said. "It is hard to imagine one observer being able to watch what is happening in 15 different voting areas."

The Ohio Republicans were not formally involved in the case but sat in on the hearing. Weaver said the party was "looking at all our options."

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