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Published: Sunday, 2/13/2005

Political pugilism

Here they are, ladies and gentlemen, head to head, Ohio's chief legal officer versus Ohio's chief election officer, in a battle that could very well preview the struggle for the Republican nomination for governor in 2006.

In this corner of the ring, it's Attorney General Jim Petro. In the other corner, it's Secretary of State Ken Blackwell. Remember, gentlemen, no sucker punches, just shake hands and come out fighting!

What sparked this round of political pugilism in Columbus was an opinion by the attorney general that the secretary of state is not legally empowered to require that county boards of elections select a particular type of voting equipment from a state-approved list.

Underlying the dispute is a Jan. 12 directive from Mr. Blackwell giving counties less than a month to choose between two vendors who supply optical-scan voting devices. Franklin County, which now uses touch-screen equipment, sought the advice of the attorney general because complying with the directive would require the county to replace its entire voting system at a cost of millions of dollars.

Mr. Blackwell's response was to reiterate that the county boards must follow his directive, even if they already use some other voting method. "The attorney general's opinion," he sniffed, "is just that, an opinion."

Despite that admonition, the Lucas County Board of Elections has indicated it will defy the secretary of state and is again looking at the use of touch-screen devices to replace its old lever-style machines. We support this move.

Mr. Petro, meanwhile, claims to have been "caught in the middle" of the dispute but says the law clearly is on the side of the county boards. He points out that formal opinions by the attorney general have the force of law unless overruled in court.

Under other circumstances, the two Republican officeholders might get together privately and work out their differences but the battle lines are clearly drawn for 2006. Both are contestants for the governor's office.

The result is a stalemate that undoubtedly will have to be settled in court. And there are shortcomings with each officeholder's position.

First, Mr. Blackwell's directive was precipitous and not a little bit irresponsible. It gave at least five counties - including Lucas - too little time to make a major and very expensive decision, that of installing an entirely new voting system. The history of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections shows the problems that can arise when election procedures are confused and poll workers are not entirely unfamiliar with new voting equipment.

If, on the other hand, Mr. Petro is correct, and the secretary of state's power is circumscribed, the unwelcome result could be an electoral apparatus even more fragmented and with less clear direction than at present.

Ohio needs an election process that is simple, predictable, and fair, one voters can trust. The sparring on the part of Mr. Petro and Mr. Blackwell is further evidence of the need for a professionally run system that would banish partisan bickering to the maximum extent possible.



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