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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Blackwell Gets Brunt of Registrants' Anger



He denies trying to disenfranchise voters.

Democrats and representatives of voter-registration groups accused Secretary of State Ken Blackwell on Monday of trying to rig this November's election by publishing draconian new rules governing the activities of people who register voters.

Testifying at a hearing chaired by Judy Grady, Blackwell's director of elections, lawyers for ACORN, Common Cause, the Ohio Democratic Party and other groups said training documents drafted by Blackwell's office are so vague that they subject registrars to felony penalties for even inadvertent violations.

As a result, ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, has drastically cut back its voter-registration efforts while its lawyers review the new rules, Katy Gall, Ohio ACORN's head organizer, said in an interview.

Gall said ACORN has registered 35,000 voters in six Ohio cities since February. Its goal is 130,000.

Samuel Gresham, an attorney for Common Cause, charged that the rules are "part of a consistent pattern, intentionally so," by Blackwell to disenfranchise black, low-income and Democratic voters.

Blackwell's actions, Gresham and others said, are intended to suppress Democratic voter turnout in what is shaping up as a closely contested governor's race between Blackwell, a Republican, and Democratic US Rep. Ted Strickland.

"It appears that Ken Blackwell finally figured out how to deal with long lines on Election Day," said state Democratic Party spokesman Brian Rothenberg. "He's just trying to outright deny people the right to vote now."

Those criticisms brought a scathing response from Blackwell's campaign spokesman, Carlo LoParo.

"That's outrageous," LoParo said. "The Blackwell campaign is making a very focused effort to gain the votes of Ohio's urban voters, but particularly Ohio's African-American voters, and that's because Ken Blackwell is the only candidate in this race that can articulate their concerns."

In contrast, Strickland is so out of touch with black voters, LoParo said, that "before this campaign, his idea of diversity was opting for Neapolitan ice cream at the congressional buffet."

The rules were drafted to comply with a new state election-reform law. The focus of most of the voter-registration activists' ire is a provision that says registrars must return applicants' forms "directly" to the secretary of state's office or a county board of elections.

Peg Rosenfield, elections specialist for the League of Women Voters of Ohio, said a strict interpretation of that rule means that the person who registers a voter can't even turn the form over to his supervisor for review.

Angered by the passage of a similar law in Florida, the League ceased all voter-registration efforts and sued Florida elections officials last month with the assistance of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. A lawyer for the Brennan Center also testified at Monday's hearing in Columbus.

State Rep. Kevin DeWine, the legislator who sponsored the election-reform law, said he believes Blackwell's office faithfully drafted the rules to comply with the bill.

However, he said the law "might need a fix" because lawmakers didn't intend to subject registrars to criminal penalties if they turn their forms over to a supervisor for review instead of directly submitting them to the secretary of state.