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Published: Tuesday, 7/25/2006

Failed election oversight

THE current issue of The Nation magazine includes an article about Ohio's troubled voting system, warning of a "ballot meltdown" in the Nov. 7 gubernatorial election.

Headline hyperbole aside, the story appears alarmingly prescient in pointing out problems likely to arise on Election Day as Buckeye State voters turn out to choose a new governor and other state officials, two justices for the state Supreme Court, and a big chunk of the General Assembly.

Many of the problems predicted - difficulties with voter registration, absentee ballots, and the casting and counting of ballots - can be traced to inadequate and incompetent oversight of the election process, which in Ohio is entrusted to both local and state officials.

County boards of elections actually manage the mechanics of elections, but the secretary of state has overall responsibility to see that the voting process is both workable and carried out freely and fairly throughout the 88 counties.

Trusting Ohioans might believe that Secretary of State Ken Blackwell would be working night and day to head off any problems, but they would be wrong. Mr. Blackwell, a Republican who is preoccupied with running for governor, is himself a big part of the problem.

As we have repeatedly pointed out over the past eight years, Mr. Blackwell, aided by the GOP-controlled legislature, has displayed a disturbingly erratic combination of inattention to his job and blatant partisanship in the conduct of elections, especially during the 2004 presidential campaign.

Lucas County voters have experienced the fallout firsthand. The secretary of state's inability to police the local board of elections led to several years of administrative confusion and partisan bickering, culminating in an excruciatingly slow count after last November's general election. While those problems generally were fixed in time for a smooth primary in May, Lucas County is not alone in suffering from the effects of Mr. Blackwell's misadministration.

More evidence is contained in a report analyzing what went wrong in May in Cleveland, where the Cuyahoga County elections board presided over an electoral fiasco that delayed results of primary voting for six days.

The independent panel of experts that produced the 394-page report cited several shortcomings of statewide importance, including Mr. Blackwell's failure to involve county boards in key decisions.

For example, in negotiating a statewide contract for purchase of electronic voting machines in 2004, the secretary of state neglected to provide for crucial ancillary equipment, overlooking even extension cords to keep the machines plugged in and recharged.

The panel also said it was troubled by the new requirement that voters show identification at the polls, predicting it will suppress voting among elderly and low-income Ohioans, and that provisional ballot rules will "generate huge problems" for tabulating returns.

All told, the likelihood of a smooth statewide vote on Nov. 7 is tenuous, which is troubling because the gubernatorial election is the most hotly contested in years.

The supreme irony is that Ken Blackwell, the man who would be Ohio's next governor, is most responsible for this sad state of affairs.



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