Court bars quick hearings on Ohio voter registrations

U.S. appeals panel blocks pre-Election Day action

October 30, 2004|By Tim Jones | Tim Jones,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

COLUMBUS, Ohio - A federal appeals court panel acted yesterday to prevent Ohio Republicans from contesting tens of thousands of voter registrations prior to Tuesday's election.

The decision by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati is a blow to the Republican Party, which wanted county election boards to hold hearings on its claims that some of the registrations are fraudulent.

The appellate court upheld a decision issued earlier in the week by a federal judge that blocked the pre-Election Day hearings.

Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro and the state Republican Party said they do not plan to appeal the ruling.

While the ruling effectively eliminates the chance of hearings, it does not remove the possibility of thousands of Republicans and Democrats fanning out across this hotly contested battleground state Tuesday to challenge the rights of individuals to cast ballots.

President Bush and Sen. John Kerry are slugging it out for Ohio's 20 electoral votes, and turnout in the Buckeye State is viewed as critical. More than 700,000 new voters were registered this year in Ohio, and analysts say most of those new registrations are Democrats.

No Republican has won the White House without carrying Ohio.

Bush, who won the state by 3 1/2 percentage points in 2000, campaigned in Ohio yesterday. Kerry will campaign here today. Both candidates are expected to return again before Tuesday. Polls show the race is tight.

The fight over the validity of voter registrations has been furious in the past two weeks, as county election boards have fielded complaints from Republicans that up to 35,000 registrations statewide might be flawed. Election officials in Summit County, in northeastern Ohio, threw out the 900 challenges to registrations in that county Thursday.

Both Republicans and Democrats have signed up thousands of so-called polling place witnesses to challenge voters next week.

In a surprising move yesterday, Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, a Republican, said all challengers should be excluded from polling places next week.

About 90 minutes later, though, Petro - also a Republican - refused, saying he has a "constitutional obligation" to defend a longstanding state law that allows challengers to act at polling places.

"Neither the secretary of state nor I can negotiate away the legal rights of Ohio citizens," Petro said in a statement, defending the law.

Both men intend to run for governor in 2006.

David Sullivan, director of the Democratic Party's Voter Protection Program in Ohio, praised the appeals court's ruling.

"We are anticipating a smooth election with everyone's right to vote protected," Sullivan said in a conference call with reporters.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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