Officials Say 2 Court Rulings Will Halt G.O.P. Challenges
By JAMES DAO New York Times
Published: October 30, 2004
COLUMBUS, Ohio, Oct. 29 - Rulings by two federal courts on Friday made it virtually impossible for Ohio Republicans to continue their challenges of 23,000 new voter registrations before Election Day, state officials said.
The rulings brought to a close a week of bitter litigation between the two parties over the fate of the new registrants. Republicans had challenged the right of those people to vote because mail sent to their addresses had been returned as undeliverable - evidence, they said, of fraudulent registrations.
But Judge Susan J. Dlott, of Federal District Court in Cincinnati, blocked six county election boards on Thursday from holding hearings into those challenges. On Friday morning, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld Judge Dlott's ruling.
Then on Friday afternoon, Judge Dlott issued an injunction blocking the challenge hearings in any of the state's 88 counties, effectively stopping any more challenges before Election Day.
People whose registrations are successfully challenged do not immediately lose their right to vote. But they will be required to vote with a provisional ballot, which is reviewed after Election Day to determine whether the person is an eligible voter.
The Democrats contend the vast majority of the 23,000 cases involve mistakes by the post office or people who have moved. They say they prefer that voters be allowed to use regular voting machines so their votes are counted immediately. Provisional ballots are held for 10 days and are vulnerable to being lost or tampered with, they contend.
Republican officials said the two rulings on Friday had undermined their efforts to root out what they contend is widespread voter registration fraud. And they said that they planned to challenge many of the 23,000 voters again at the polls, as is allowed under Ohio law.
Mark Weaver, a counsel to the Ohio Republican Party, said thousands of Republican challengers will be stationed at precincts around the state, carrying lists of recent deaths and of absentee ballot voters, to ensure that no one votes twice.
Democrats in Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, and Summit County, which includes Akron, have also filed separate lawsuits in federal courts asking that the Republicans be prohibited from placing challengers inside polling stations, a practice that has been allowed under Ohio law for decades but has rarely been used.
"We want a level playing field where if you are registered to vote, and you show up, you are not intimidated, hassled or put through this extra challenges," said Andy Padrutt, executive director of the Summit County Democratic Party.
A ruling on the suit is expected on Monday, Mr. Padrutt said.
In response to the Summit and Hamilton County suits, Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, a Republican, issued a statement recommending that no challengers be allowed in polling places next week. But Attorney General Jim Petro, also a Republican, rejected that recommendation and said he would fight to uphold the state's election law.
Democrats said the conflict between the two state officials, both considered likely candidates for governor in 2006, showed that the Republicans' challenge strategy had become an embarrassing debacle. But Republicans said the party remained united in its efforts to prevent fraud.
There were demonstrations in some cities regarding registrations. In Cleveland, the police were called when members of a community group tried to deliver a letter to the Cuyahoga County Republican headquarters asking the party to withdraw challenges against voters. Punches were thrown at the front door and each side accused the other of assault, but the police could not determine who was at fault.