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Published: Friday, 9/1/2006

Lawsuit questions Ohio voting rights

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS A federal lawsuit filed yesterday accuses Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and unnamed elections officials and vendors of conspiring to undermine the voting rights of urban, African-American, and younger voters in 2004.

The suit asks U.S. District Judge Algenon Marbley to declare that disproportionately allocated voting machines, new provisional ballot rules, purges of registration rolls, and other practices targeted communities during the presidential election.

Unless there are public findings and official acknowledgment of the manifest voter suppression and vote rigging in the 2004 presidential election, that experience and the continuing official indifference to it is likely to have a chilling effect upon those ... who were targets of such tactics, the suit states.

The lawsuit does not challenge the official tally of the 2004 election in Ohio, which handed President Bush a narrow victory over John Kerry.

But the plaintiffs, representing African-American and college-age voters, plan to ask Judge Marbley, a Clinton appointee, to issue an injunction next week to prevent destruction of the 2004 ballots, which the plaintiffs continue to study for potential irregularities. Federal law allows the destruction of such ballots 22 months after an election.

The suit is the latest in a series related to the 2004 presidential election as well as to new laws affecting the 2006 election, when voters will select a governor, U.S. senator, and other statewide officials.

U.S. District Court in Cleveland will hear a challenge by civic organizations to new voter registration rules that they argue could suppress volunteer registration drives. The American Civil Liberties Union has challenged a new requirement that naturalized citizens show proof of citizenship at the polls.

And a lawsuit filed by the League of Women Voters of Ohio is still pending in U.S. District Court in Toledo that accuses Gov. Bob Taft and Mr. Blackwell of presiding over a broken election system in 2004.

Cliff Arnebeck, one of the attorneys involved in yesterday s lawsuit, was involved in unsuccessful challenges to the results of the 2004 election.

What these conspiracy theorists fail to accept is that the elections in Ohio are primarily administered at the county level by bipartisan boards of elections, said Blackwell spokesman James Lee. The secretary of state s office did not allocate the placement of any voting machines. The secretary of state s office did not count any ballots. All of that is done at the local level, as well it should.

The process has been thoroughly reviewed by the media and other independent groups that have all confirmed the legitimacy of the 2004 presidential election, he said.

Willis Brown, an African- American and president of the King Lincoln Bronzeville Neighborhood Association of east Columbus, said voters turned away by long lines two years ago are going to be wary this year.

If they re not assured that when they go to vote that they won t have to wait three hours, they re not going to come, Mr. Brown said.

Mr. Blackwell, Republican candidate for governor on Nov. 7, is African-American.

Though not mentioned in yesterday s lawsuit, John Marshall, one of the voters attorneys, said those who have inspected ballots cast in 2004 have found indications some may have been pre-punched, a move that would negate the ballot when a voter punched it a second time for a different candidate.

This year, no voter will cast a punch-card ballot. All counties will have converted to either computerized touch-screen machines or optical-scan devices.

Although Mr. Lee said the secretary of state s office won t stand in the way of another review, Mr. Marshall said he fears individual counties may destroy the ballots without intervention.

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



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