Ohio Litigating Its Way Through Election Cycle

By Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 2008

Earlier this year, Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner met in her office with 61 lawyers and state election officials to try to keep disagreements over election issues from ending up in court.

That hasn't gone so well.

Brunner, a Democrat, has faced off against Ohio Republicans in eight lawsuits this presidential election cycle, and as Nov. 4 nears, the legal activity is stepping up.

"I'll bet I'll be in 12 by the time this is done," Brunner said.

Yesterday, the state Supreme Court ruled against Brunner in one of the cases, ordering her to allow poll watchers to observe early voting, which Republicans had sought. That came a day after Brunner had appealed another decision to the U.S. Supreme Court in a case that could jeopardize the ballots of 200,000 new voters next month.

Litigation is not new in Ohio politics, but it ramped up this year as the swing state became a closely contested presidential battleground. About 666,000 voters have registered in Ohio since January, with an edge to Democrats.

In 2004, a margin of about 118,000 votes won the state for President Bush and left a trail of bitterness over decisions made by Kenneth Blackwell, the Republican secretary of state at the time. During that race, Republicans dropped a plan to challenge more than 30,000 voters just days before the election.

This year, Brunner and Republicans have already been in and out of court on several issues, including how to handle absentee ballot requests and absentee voting.

The case now before the Supreme Court deals with voters whose registration information conflicted with Ohio's driver's license data or Social Security records. The mismatches could be the result of typographical errors, but they also could point to fraudulent registrations, the Republicans contend. They took Brunner to court to force her to provide county election boards with easily accessible lists of the mismatched voters to verify before Nov 4.

Brunner's appeal argues that producing the lists would disrupt local election boards that "have vitally important jobs to do in preparing Ohio for this historic election." Any problems could be corrected after the election, Brunner said.

If the Supreme Court does not overturn the earlier ruling, those voters would have to prove their eligibility before Election Day to receive a regular ballot. They could cast a provisional ballot, but it would be tallied only if the discrepancies were cleared up shortly after Nov. 4.

"The lawsuit is a very orchestrated effort to suppress voting," Brunner said yesterday.

"That is a shameful assertion coming from a chief elections officer," said Ohio Republican Party Deputy Chairman Kevin DeWine. "Yes, I am interested in suppressing fraudulent registrations."

DeWine said he believes many of the mismatches stem from clerical errors, but recent problems with voter drives in Ohio by the community-organizing group ACORN have heightened concerns about the accuracy of registrations.

Brunner and voting rights advocates have worried that the list of mismatches would allow Republicans to challenge those voters before Nov. 4 or at the polls. DeWine said the party would ask for each county's list but would not challenge individual voters.

State Democratic Party spokesman Alex Goepfert said "it is clear that the Republican Party would seek to use this information to disenfranchise eligible Ohio voters who have done absolutely nothing wrong."

Jon Greenbaum, director of the Voting Rights Project, which has sided both with and against Brunner, said he is leery of GOP motives for getting lists and added that "asking for sweeping changes right before an election is a recipe for mischief."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company