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Published: Wednesday, 6/17/2009

Ohio settles lawsuit from 2004 election

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner has settled a four-year-old federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Ohio's elections system as it operated in the presidential election of 2004.

As part of the settlement of the suit filed in Toledo initially against her predecessor, Kenneth Blackwell, Ms. Brunner agreed the state will pay $450,000 in legal bills for the League of Women Voters of Ohio and its Toledo chapter.

The settlement does not concede that the way the November, 2004, election was run was unconstitutional.

But Ms. Brunner agreed, among other things, to provide future voters with greater access to paper ballots as an alternative to standing in long lines, to govern at the state level the training of poll workers and communications with them on Election Day, and to closely monitor why counties require voters to use provisional ballots or why they reject absentee ballots.

The suit was filed by the League of Women Voters of Ohio, its Toledo chapter, and a number of voters who contended that long lines, theallocation of voting machines, and the advice of poll workers were "so deficient as to deny or severely burden their fundamental right to vote."

"The lawsuit was not about overturning election results," said Peg Hull Smith, spokesman and past president of the Toledo chapter. "It was about fixing a broken election system that was preventing people from having their votes counted."

Linda Lalley, immediate past president of the state League, agreed that many of the settlement items had already been implemented by Ms. Brunner since she took office in 2007.

"The key is they won't die with Jennifer but will continue with her successors," she said. Ms. Brunner's tenure as secretary of state is likely to end in early 2011 because she is running for U.S. Senate instead of for re-election.

"This lawsuit was one of 21 pending matters of litigation inherited by my administration in January, 2007," Ms. Brunner said. "We are confident that this settlement will be a springboard for Ohioans to see a new day in continued smooth elections in which Ohio voters participate in record numbers and in which Ohio and the nation have confidence."

One key area that remains unresolved is the League's contention that Ohio failed to properly implement a functioning, federally mandated statewide database of registered voters.

As part of the settlement, Ms. Brunner, a Democrat, agreed to continue working to develop such a system and to make regular reports back to U.S. District Judge James Carr on her progress. The League's claim on that front remains alive but on hold.

"This past spring, representatives of the secretary of state met with the vendors and the counties they serve and have been meeting with the [Bureau of Motor Vehicles] to talk about the matching process [of voter registration data]," said Brunner spokesman Jeff Ortega. "The goal is to come up with a new way of providing that database. It's still under development."

The statewide registration database and Ms. Brunner's hand-

ling of registration applications red-flagged by mismatches when cross-referenced with information in BMV and federal Social Security databases became a controversial subject in the 2008 election.

"Two courts and 10 judges found Secretary Brunner in violation of federal law for failing to provide this verification system," said Ohio Republican Party Chairman Kevin DeWine. "She's been promising to fix the problem for three years, and we're no closer to a solution now than we were then."

Ms. Lalley said it made sense to file the lawsuit in Toledo where the 2004 presidential election was characterized by long lines, unexpected waits, and voter confusion. "Lucas County had a horrible time with the 2004 election," Ms. Lalley said. "We wanted to file in a jurisdiction that epitomized the problem. Unfortunately, Lucas County was a good poster child for that."

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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