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Published: Sunday, 10/31/2004

Army recruiter spearheads challenged Lucas voters



As the chief recruiter in Toledo, U.S. Army Sgt. Peter Conklin is a busy guy.

So when he received a letter last week from the Lucas County board of elections notifying him that his right to vote in Tuesday's election was being challenged, several thoughts sprung to mind.

"I thought a lot of things. A lot of adjectives and adverbs," he said, adding that none of them is fit to be published.

The notice, sent to him and 930 others around the county, informed them that their voter registration was under challenge and instructed them to attend a public hearing yesterday morning to defend their right to vote.

Paid to defend his country, defending his right to vote was a no-brainer.

Dressed in his uniform, he arrived at Government Center only to discover the hearing had been canceled because a federal court had ruled Friday that the hearing could not go forward, and that no challenged voters would be disqualified.

"My biggest thing is someone is wasting my time. I want to know who is wasting my time. I want to know who is challenging my right to vote," he said.

"I don't have time to waste coming down here and fooling around with this stuff," the sergeant said. "You give up your rights to defend the rights of others to vote. And then this happens? Well, they picked on the wrong pit bull."

Dozens of others also showed up - most of them angry, some of them confused.

He sat in the front row in City Council chambers while the four-member board of elections convened a special meeting to deal with the challenges and other issues springing up as Election Day looms. After it became clear that no voters would be allowed to address the board members, he stood up to leave.

"I've got to go. I've got a nation to defend," he proclaimed loudly, as the crowd broke out in cheers and applause.

Elections board Chairman Bernadette Noe, a lawyer, refused to take public comment from the voters, saying it would violate the federal court decision ordering her not to hold a hearing, and would have violated state law because taking public testimony during an official board meeting was not on the official, published meeting agenda.

Allowing people to address the board "would have looked very much like a hearing. It would have looked enough like a hearing to me that I think we could have been sued. We could have been sued by the challengers," she said.

Democrat Paula Ross made a motion to allow public comment, but it was defeated by Ms. Noe and fellow Republican board member Sam Thurber.

The decision was not popular. Several in the crowd shouted at the board members, demanding a right to speak. Soon after, five Toledo police officers arrived in council chambers and things calmed down.

"This is my first year that I can vote in a big election, so I thought I'd take the chance," said Ashley Whetsel, 20, of Toledo. "No one is going to take away my right to vote."

Stacy Kuhn, another young voter who works as a waitress at Max and Erma's restaurant in Maumee, arrived at the council chambers wearing her work clothes.

"I'm supposed to be at work right now," she said. "My boss was nice enough to let me come in late today.

"I was very surprised" that someone was contesting her registration. "I couldn't believe it. I'm confused. I came down here because I don't want to get to the polls and find out then that I'm not able to vote."

Local elections officials said in their meeting last week that they were uncertain how the voters were singled out to be challenged, but thousands across the state were targeted, most of them newly registered.

The ruling by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals quashed hearings set for several Ohio counties. When voters are challenged, state law prescribes that a hearing must be held, said John Borell, an assistant county prosecutor who serves as legal counsel to the elections board.

Both the Democrats and Republicans have signed up hundreds of people to staff polling places on Tuesday to observe the voting process and to challenge voters they believe might be ineligible to vote.

According to a directive issued Monday by Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, those voters who are deemed by poll workers to be ineligible to vote must still be given a provisional ballot to vote, if they so choose.

Elections officials will sort out later whether those who cast provisional ballots were eligible to do so. Those who are later deemed eligible will then have their votes counted.

Under state law, that process could take weeks.

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