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Published: Sunday, 10/2/2005

Reformers question Blackwell's motives

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell would never have to live with what Reform Ohio Now may have wrought, but the proponents of a constitutional amendment stripping his office of its election oversight role make it clear this is aimed squarely at him.

As with Katherine Harris in Florida in 2000, Mr. Blackwell's affiliation with the Bush campaign in 2004 made his decisions affecting the election immediately suspect, even when courts agreed with him.

Perception is everything, noted Edward Foley, an Ohio State University law professor specializing in election law.

"You have to prepare for election-related storms the way you prepare for natural storms," said Mr. Foley. "First, you build the levees. In the context of the election, you build your system, getting the right number of machines in place, getting registration lists accurate....

"But it is just as important to have a good rescue plan in place if the levee breaks...," he said. "The election rescue plan will only have the confidence of the citizens if the person in charge of rescuing the election system is perceived as neutral. If voters don't believe he is neutral, the rescue plan is doomed to failure."

In one of four proposed, election-related constitutional amendments on the Nov. 8 ballot, voters will asked to transfer the secretary of state's role as Ohio's chief elections officer to an appointed, nine-member board on which essentially no one who is politically active beyond voting could sit.

The creation of a nonpartisan system of election administration was one recommendation of a commission chaired by former Democrat President Jimmy Carter and former Republican U.S. Secretary of State James Baker III.

But the commission's idea of a single nonelected director in each state differs from a nine-member board and the elections administrator it selects that has been proposed by Reform Ohio Now, a coalition of largely Democrat, labor, environmental, and government watchdog groups.

The members of the new State Board of Elections Supervisors would consist of four men and four women named by the governor and leaders of the opposite party in the General Assembly. Both would have to keep geographic and racial diversity in mind in making their appointments.

The ninth member, an independent who would presumably serve as tie-breaker when necessary, would be named by a unanimous vote of the Ohio Supreme Court. No elected or appointed public official, candidate, lobbyist, or officer with a political party could serve. They could not be involved in campaign fund-raising or a ballot issue campaign.

The proposal would leave the current local structure of 88 bipartisan county boards of election in place, but the county boards would turn to the state board for tie-breaking and election directives as they now look to the secretary of state.

Political arrows flew when Mr. Blackwell issued to county boards last year directives perceived as aiding the Bush campaign. He ordered that no provisional ballot cast in the wrong precinct would be counted, a decision later upheld by the courts. He later retreated when assailed for requiring boards to reject voter registration forms not of a particular paper weight.

But he also confounded Republicans when he rejected the petitions of Ralph Nader, whom pundits expected to draw votes from Democrat John Kerry. And although he opposes all four Reform Ohio Now amendments, he defended the organization's access to the ballot when Republicans challenged their petitions.

"The fact is that the Ohio elections administration process works well," said Blackwell spokesman Carlo LoParo. "It is multifaceted. At the local level, there's the valuable bipartisan checks and balances against any sort of fraud or mismanagement. Both major political parties appoint members to boards of elections.

"The process is further enriched because the top decision-maker, the chief elections officer, is accountable to the voters," he said. "This (proposed) board would allow elected officials to appoint bureaucrats who would not be accountable to voters to nine-year terms."

The proposal has frustrated those running for secretary of state, who know that the job description may be completely rewritten by the time they get to the ballot in 2006. All four announced candidates oppose the amendment.

"The great fallacy of these proposals is that you will still have politics," said Rep. Jim Trakas (R., Independence), former Cuyahoga County Republican chairman.

"You can't take away the right of the people to vote for their chief elections officer and replace him with a bunch of political appointees who would be unaccountable to the voters," he said.

Jennifer Brunner, Democrat and former Franklin County Common Pleas Court judge, was deputy director under Secretary of State Sherrod Brown in the 1980s.

"Ken Blackwell politicized the office and he used the office to push (last year's gay marriage amendment) and to promote President Bush," she said. "He also ran an election where he wasn't fair in the directives he gave to the boards of elections. People only vote when they perceive the system is fair."

Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Greg Hartmann, a Republican, characterized the RON movement as a "a power grab by out-of-state interests."

"I will not play a leadership role for any candidates or any issues, which should resolve any appearance of bias, but that doesn't mean that should be written into the constitution," he said.

Said Colin Beach, a Republican and recent law school graduate: "We know who's responsible now if something goes wrong. With a nine-person appointed board, there would be a lot of finger-pointing."

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.



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