A U.S. District Court judge yesterday effectively ended efforts by Republicans in Ohio to challenge the eligibility of tens of thousands of voters in one of the most closely contested states in this year's presidential race.
Judge Susan J. Dlott in Cincinnati issued an order preventing local election boards from going forward with plans to notify challenged voters and hold hearings until she hears legal arguments tomorrow. But because her ruling means that those election board hearings cannot take place within the time frame state law requires before the election, Dlott's ruling killed the GOP effort that had targeted 35,000 voters, Democratic and Republican party officials said.
David Sullivan, director of the Democratic Party's Voter Protection Program in Ohio, praised the ruling and said the GOP was never able to offer proof that the challenged voters are ineligible. "The Republican assault on tens of thousands of Ohio voters was an unprecedented effort to intimidate voters, especially minorities, but it has backfired," he said.
Mark Weaver, a lawyer for the Ohio Republican Party, said yesterday's ruling does not prevent the party from going forward with plans to place 3,400 monitors in polling places, particularly in heavily Democratic urban areas. The challenges will take place Tuesday instead of being decided beforehand, he said.
States allow political parties to monitor polls and challenge voters' eligibility. In Ohio, the challenge is considered by a bipartisan election board.
"The ironic twist here is that now there will be longer lines [at the polls] because questions about voter eligibility will have to be decided on Election Day, rather than ahead of time," Weaver said.
A spokesman for Ohio's secretary of state, J. Kenneth Blackwell (R), who was named in the lawsuit, said he will not appeal the ruling. Election officials in Cuyahoga County, where most of challenges were filed, said they will not appeal either.
Both parties have been engaged in intense legal wrangling over election laws this year as they look for every possible edge in states where polls show the presidential race too close to call. They have fought over provisional ballots -- given to voters whose names do not appear on rolls at polling sites -- and how to determine their validity and how quickly the ballots should be counted. And they have battled over poll identification rules and procedures for early voting, a process in many states -- such as Florida -- that has already allowed more than 1.3 million people to vote in advance.
Ohio was part of an effort by Republicans in many battleground states to challenge voter registrations as Election Day approaches.
It was the second time that the GOP has lost on the issue. In Nevada, another battleground, Clark County election officials rejected an attempt this month by the former executive director of that state's GOP to challenge 17,000 voters in the Las Vegas area.
Dlott's ruling could alleviate the possibility of massive disruptions in the last days of the campaign. Cuyahoga County, where about 17,000 of the challenged voters reside, had been planning a mass hearing on Saturday.
The legal setback has not deterred GOP officials, who say that challenges are necessary to safeguard the election against fraud.
In Florida, the GOP has filed plans to place poll watchers at 5,000 polling places, spokeswoman Mindy Tucker Fletcher said. Whether those observers will challenge individual voters depends on the circumstances, she said. "If there's something blatant, we may choose to do that," she said.
In Denver, election officials said the Republican Party told them it plans to have 350 poll watchers to challenge voters there. "This is a very organized, very intense effort," said Alan McBeth of the Denver Election Commission. "If it becomes abusive, we may have to step in and say this is out of hand."
Tom Josefiak, the Bush campaign's general counsel, said in a recent interview that challenges would be conducted in a non-intimidating manner that would not disrupt voting.
Democrats, however, argue that the real aim of the challenge program is to keep voters likely to support Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), particularly minorities, from casting ballots.
Bob Bauer, a lawyer for the Democratic National Committee, said Democrats will also have large numbers of poll watchers. But, he said, "our watchers will be there to help voters, not to hinder them, to answer their questions, not to question them."
In Florida, Republican poll watchers will be disproportionately concentrated in minority precincts, according to a Democratic Party analysis of census data and GOP plans filed in five counties. In Miami-Dade, 59 percent of predominately black precincts will have at least one GOP poll watcher, compared with 37 percent of white precincts.
Although Fletcher did not dispute those numbers, she said that the party will not single out black neighborhoods, but rather heavily Democratic ones. "Those are the places most likely for the Democrats . . . to try to steal the election," she said.
Staff writer Ann Gerhart contributed to this report.