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Federal judge rules partisan voter challenges in Ohio unconstitutional

[JURIST] US District Judge Susan Dlott ruled Monday morning that partisan voter challengers at Ohio's polling places are unconstitutional. Dlott's ruling comes in a lawsuit seeking to remove challengers from polling places on the grounds that Republicans have discriminated against African-Americans by challenging new voter registrations in predominately black precincts. The ruling is in line with last week's recommendation by Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell that challengers, who can question a person's identity, age, residency or citizenship before they receive a ballot, be banned from polling places. Dlott issued an injunction barring challengers at polls in Ohio's Hamilton County, "because of the grave due process and equal protection issues raised by the challenge process as it is to be employed in the November 2, 2004 election." In her ruling, Dlott writes:

This Court finds that the presence of vast numbers of challengers inexperienced in the electoral process, under these conditions, imposes a severe burden on the right to vote of individual voters and of Ohio voters at large.... In this case, the portion of § 3505.20 allowing private challengers to challenge the eligibility of a person offering to vote at a precinct is not narrowly tailored to serve Ohio's compelling interest in preventing voter fraud. Under the statute, bipartisan election judges and any elector then lawfully in the polling place may challenge the eligibility of any person offering to vote at that precinct. Election judges are seasoned, experienced workers in the electoral process. Defendant Burke testified that he and his co-chair of the Hamilton County Board of Elections were quite concerned when they saw that so many challengers had registered to be present on election day and were likewise concerned with the impact of several hundred lawyers attempting to take over the challenge process from the poll workers who are experienced in conducting that process.... Further, Defendant Blackwell's recommendation that the challengers be removed from the polls strongly undermines any argument that having these challengers at the polls is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest. Defendant Blackwell's recommendation highlights the fact that the chief elections official of Ohio believes that fair elections can occur without the challenge process. The conflict between Secretary of State Blackwell and Attorney General Petro indicates that even the two top officials responsible for enforcement of election laws disagree over the manner in which to proceed. How can the average election official or inexperienced challenger be expected to understand the challenge process if the two top election officials cannot?
Read the full text of Dlott's ruling [PDF]. Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law has case materials and analysis of Monday's ruling. NewsNet5 has more. From Cincinnati, the Enquirer has background on Sunday's hearing in the case.

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