Monday, November 01, 2004

Rebuffing G.O.P., 2 Judges Bar Challengers at Polls in Ohio

The New York Times
November 1, 2004

Rebuffing G.O.P., 2 Judges Bar Challengers at Polls in Ohio

In a double blow to the Republicans on the final day of campaigning in the presidential race, two federal judges today barred challengers representing any political party from polling places in Ohio during Tuesday's election.

United States District Judge Susan J. Dlott in Cincinnati found that the application of Ohio's statute allowing challengers at polling places was unconstitutional and that allowing any candidates other than election judges and other electors into the polling place would place "an undue burden upon voters" and impede their rights to vote.

In a similar case, United States District Judge John R. Adams of Akron said poll workers should be the ones who determine if voters are eligible.

The rulings apply to all Ohio's 88 counties, a spokesman for Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, Carlo LoParo, told The Associated Press.

With the rulings, the judges made clear that they did not want partisan challengers to voters' ballots inside the polling places, and that the disruption that such challenges would create outweighed any potential voting fraud, which Republicans had cited as the reason for the challengers.

Mark Weaver, a lawyer for the Ohio Republican Party, said after the ruling by Judge Dlott and before the ruling by Judge Adams that the Republicans would ask the Sixth United States District Court of Appeals in Cincinnati to overturn it, The Associated Press reported.

The findings were issued as President Bush and Senator John Kerry planned a last sweep for votes. Mr. Bush was traveling to Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa and New Mexico, ending up late today in Dallas. Mr. Kerry, after an early-morning appearance in Florida, was heading off to Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Before the two contenders left on the last stages of their campaign, Judge Adams said in his finding: "In light of these extraordinary circumstances, the contentious nature of the imminent election, the court cannot and must not turn a blind eye to the substantial likelihood that significant harm will result not only to voters, but also to the voting process itself, if appointed challengers are permitted at the polls.''

Republican Party officials in Ohio took formal steps on Oct. 22 to place thousands of recruits inside polling places on Election Day to challenge the qualifications of voters they suspect are not eligible to cast ballots.

Party officials say their effort is necessary to guard against fraud arising from aggressive moves by the Democrats to register tens of thousands of new voters in Ohio, seen as one of the most pivotal battlegrounds in the elections.

But an African-American couple from Cincinatti, who took the case before Judge Dlott, said the Republicans were deploying challengers in largely black precincts in Hamilton County in an effort to intimidate and block black voters.

Judge Dlott said that the evidence did not indicate that the presence of additional challengers "would serve Ohio's interest in preventing voter fraud better than would the system of election judges.''

In a separate case last week, Judge Dlott temporarily halted election board hearings on challenges.

The state G.O.P. had challenged 35,000 registrations because mail to those addresses came back undelivered.

Democrats said the Republicans were trying to keep the poor and minorities, who move more often, from voting.

Ohio election officials said last week that they had never seen so large a drive to prepare for Election Day challenges.

They said they were scrambling to be ready for disruptions in the voting process as well as alarm and complaints among voters. Some officials said they worried that the challenges could discourage or even frighten others waiting to vote.