Ohio election chief in the spotlight

For weeks, Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell has generated controversy while deciding how voters in this crucial swing state can go about choosing a president. Now the Republican is being called on to usher the presidential election to a conclusion.

Ohio was leaning toward President George Bush on Wednesday, but not leaning far enough to be declared definitively. At issue were provisional ballots, cast by people who didn’t update their registration after moving or didn’t appear on the regular poll lists.

Bush’s margin over Senator John Kerry was about 135 000 votes.

Blackwell speculated there could be as many as 175 000 provisional ballots, meaning they could contain the margin of victory for Kerry.
He asserted that Ohio’s system of bipartisan election officials is adequately structured to deal with the provisional ballots.

“If it takes two hours, two days or two weeks, the result that we give you will be a good result that the voters of the state of Ohio can have confidence in,” Blackwell said.

Critics view Blackwell—a black conservative who has crusaded against everything from taxes to gay marriage—as a willing pawn of the Republicans. His record and ambitions reveal him as more maverick than pawn, willing to take on anyone—Republican or Democrat, black or white—who gets in his way.

“If you get pushed around,” Blackwell has said, “people will just push you around more.”

Groups from the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People to the League of Women Voters have denounced his decisions in recent months.

First, Blackwell tried enforcing an archaic rule requiring voter registration cards to be printed on 80-pound paper.

Then he was sued for an order requiring voters to cast provisional ballots in the precinct where they live as opposed to any precinct in the county, which he called a recipe for chaos. Democrats said it would hurt minorities and the poor.

Blackwell backed off from the paper weight rule, but won in federal court on provisional ballots. He also handed the Democrats a major election victory by ruling to keep independent candidate Ralph Nader off the ballot, finding evidence of fraud on Nader’s campaign petitions in Ohio.

“I’m in the business of managing and administering a fair and effective election,” Blackwell said Wednesday. “That’s what we’ve done in the state of Ohio.”

In keeping with his penchant for strong positions, Blackwell undertook election legal battles as secretary of state even as he campaigned in favour of one of the country’s toughest gay marriage bans.

Voters approved the ban by a 3-2 margin. Opponents filed an elections complaint alleging Blackwell aired misleading radio ads, but the Ohio Elections Commission cleared him of any wrongdoing.—Sapa-AP

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