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What's the Big Deal About the Ohio Secretary of State?

By Doug Trapp · September 12th, 2002 · Burning Questions
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Why should we care who's elected Ohio Secretary of State?

There are two key reasons: The secretary of state is in charge of ensuring the voting system works well and businesses can easily keep their incorporation paperwork up to date.

Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, a Republican, seeks a second four-year term. His opponent, State Rep. Bryan Flannery (D-Lakewood), says Blackwell hasn't focused enough on the job.

The office runs much more efficiently than it did four years ago, according to James Lee, Blackwell's communications director. Campaign finance reports for statewide candidates quickly appear on the secretary of state's database. Election boards are connected in an electronic network, allowing the office to quickly share information. Business filings now take only two days; four years ago they took up to 18 weeks, Lee says.

But there's much more work to do, according to Flannery, a former University of Notre Dame football player who owns a Gulf gas station in Garfield Heights.

"Our elections system in Ohio is one of the worst in the country," he says.

The Chicago Tribune concluded Ohio threw out more ballots in the 2000 election -- 2 percent -- than any state but Illinois and Florida. Those states have spent money on their systems, but Blackwell is waiting for federal funds for new equipment.

"He's not doing anything," Flannery says. "He's kind of sitting there."

Flannery wants at least $20 million annually for five years to upgrade the voting system -- state budget deficit or not.

"We would have the most updated system in the country," he says.

Blackwell has spent a lot of time visiting boards of elections and learning about their problems so he can come up with the best solution, Lee says. He cites two reasons for ballots being thrown out: over-voting, when too many holes are punched; and under-voting, when too few are punched.

Flannery says Blackwell should play a role in business growth and development because the state is losing businesses. For starters, he could use his office to collect more information about why businesses leave or dissolve.

"That's the problem -- we don't know," Flannery says.

But monitoring business growth is the job of the Department of Development or the Department of Commerce, Lee says.

Flannery criticizes a flier about vote fraud Blackwell sent Ohio polls for the May primary and November general elections. The flier includes Blackwell's name next to the word "vote."

"What Ken has done is used his office to creatively get his name out," Flannery says.

The two previous secretaries of state -- one a Democrat -- authorized a similar flier, Lee says. But for the sake of appearances, Blackwell asked the polling places to remove the fliers.

Flannery didn't file a complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission (OEC), which is part of the secretary of state's office, saying politics would interfere. Instead he took his complaint to the media, calling Blackwell's actions "criminal."

Blackwell responded with an OEC complaint accusing Flannery of making 15 false statements about his opponent's campaign.

A Sept. 5 OEC hearing ended with all but one of the complaints dismissed. The seven-member commission found Flannery's use of the word "criminal" went too far but declined to refer the matter for prosecution or even issue a letter of reprimand, according to Phil Richter, executive director of the OEC.

Flannery also questions whether Blackwell is committed to the secretary of state's job. He chaired Steve Forbes' 2000 presidential campaign and spent eight days in Florida during the presidential voting crisis. Blackwell's Web site has a long list of organizations he's been involved in.

"He's done well looking for other opportunities," Flannery says.

Blackwell learned a lot in Florida that applies to Ohio, Lee says.

Flannery is appealing to voters' sense of fairness. Aside from the state supreme court, Ohio Democrats haven't won a statewide office since 1990.

"In Ohio, things don't go well when you have one-party rule," he says.



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