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Published: Monday, 10/4/2004

If Ohio does a Florida, Blackwell will get blame

COLUMBUS - If Ohio is the Florida of 2000, then Ken Blackwell is Katherine Harris.

That is part of the explosive strategy that Democrats are using in this year's presidential election.

It strikes at the core of our democracy, whether citizens can trust the voting system - a debate that is crucial to the nation's future.

It also could turn out be a strategy that is off-base, fueled more by conspiracy theories by publicity-seekers and partisans trying to drag down Mr. Blackwell's gubernatorial ambitions in 2006.

The strategy is rooted in the outcome four years ago in Florida, where many Democrats felt that George W. Bush stole the election as the U.S. Supreme Court declared him the winner of that state's electoral votes by 537 votes.

Of course, as Michael Moore reminded us in Fahrenheit 9/11, Al Gore, keenly attuned to how the Washington establishment would perceive him, let it happen, his handlers out-maneuvered by the folks in Mr. Bush's corner.

"Americans' democratic right to vote is in the hands of 50 individuals who make rulings that can affect the rights of hundreds of thousands or even millions of voters: the 50 state Secretaries of State," wrote Peter Kelley, who is a member of a group called Citizens Against Un-American Voter Intimidation.

Mr. Kelley cited the directive that Mr. Blackwell sent to county boards of election a month ago that said voter registration forms should be on 80-pound text weight paper.

The directive stated that "any Ohio form not printed on this minimum paper is considered to be an application for a registration form. Your board shall mail this appropriate form to the person listed on the application."

Last week, Mr. Blackwell's office told boards of elections to count lighter registration forms that come in by today's deadline.

The clarified directive said: "The voter registration form prescribed by the Secretary of State must be printed on white, uncoated paper of not less than 80 lb. text weight. However, any otherwise valid Ohio forms received by your Board of Elections not on 80 lb. text should be processed and the newly registered voter should be sent and asked to return the legally prescribed form to be kept by your Board as a permanent record."

That wasn't very clear to Mr. Kelley.

"The Secretary of State says he is not enforcing his decision, but he hasn't withdrawn it - in what appears to be a deliberate move to sow confusion while trying to escape public backlash against his heavy-handed moves," he said.

Mr. Kelley and others are closely scrutinizing what Mr. Blackwell is doing.

They also are examining Terry Lynn Land, the chief elections officer of Michigan. Mr. Kelley noted that a letter from Ms. Land that was posted at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Ann Arbor and Battle Creek, said that anyone registering to vote after Sept. 21 would not be eligible to vote Nov. 2.

"The only problem was that voter registration for the general election closes on Oct. 4," said Mr. Kelley. "A spokesperson for the Secretary of State said the flyer should have been released after Oct. 4."

House Minority Leader Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island) took a poke at Mr. Blackwell over the provisional voting issue - asserting that federal law appears at odds with a Secretary of State order that "provisional ballots are not to be issued to voters who appear at the wrong polling place."

Democrats, who filed a lawsuit last week in federal court over the issue, asserted that voters have a right to get a provisional ballot and have it counted if they show up at the wrong precinct.

"I'll grant: Ensuring that every vote counts is unlikely to lead to friendships with big potential campaign contributors," Mr. Redfern wrote in a letter to Mr. Blackwell.

"It is unlikely to win you relationships with executives of voting machine companies who declare themselves 'committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the President,' " a reference to a letter written by the head of voting machine manufacturer Diebold.

Terry McCoy, president of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, said Mr. Blackwell waited too long to interpret federal law, the 2002 Help America Vote Act.

"Local boards of election must ensure that rules are applied consistently across the board, for this election, or else we will face confusion and chaos on Nov. 2," said Ms. McCoy. "Unfortunately, waiting until two months before a critical election to issue guidelines gives us little confidence that all voters will be treated the same - and that all ballots will be evaluated in the same fashion - from county to county."

The Secretary of State's office is under siege. Carlo LoParo, a spokesman for Mr. Blackwell, has rejected charges of partisanship and pointed to the Help America Vote Act and state law to defend Mr. Blackwell's decisions.

Meanwhile, the nation's first trial challenging punch-card voting resumed in federal court in Akron.

The American Civil Liberties Union wants a judge to declare that Ohio's punch-card system is unconstitutional.

Statehouse Democrats worked with some Republicans to prevent Ohio from fully employing electronic voting machines in the Nov. 2 elections.

If the chads are hanging Nov. 2, guess who will get the blame?

The answer is Mr. Blackwell.



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