Oct. 27, 2006 – A directive issued by the office of Ohioâ€™s controversial secretary of state has election watchdogs worried their lawful activities outside polling stations could be banned.
The directive from Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwellâ€™s office orders county election officials to follow a statute that forbids people conducting exit polls from "loitering" or "congregating" in designated voting areas, or from "hindering" or "delaying" voters leaving the polls.
A second statute in the directive says that anyone who loiters, congregates or engages in election campaigning within a polling place could be found guilty of a misdemeanor.
Groups say that Blackwellâ€™s directive fails to clarify the meaning of key terms in the statutes, or provide election officials with guidance on how to apply them. People for the American Way, Project Vote, Common Cause and the advocacy group ACORN fear that the ambiguous language in the directive could hinder poll monitoring and exit polling and possibly lead to improper arrests.
Blackwell is himself the Republican candidate for governor of Ohio.
Groups worry that the directive will discourage volunteers and workers for nonpartisan civic organizations from providing information to voters about their rights.
In a letter sent to Blackwell on Wednesday, the groups asked the secretary to rescind the broad directive and issue a new directive that clarifies the application of the statutes.
"What types of actions would constitute â€˜loiteringâ€™ so as to interfere in the conduct of an election?" groups asked in the letter. "What types of actions constitute â€˜hinderingâ€™ or â€˜delayingâ€™ an elector on the way to or from the polls? Does one hinder or delay a voter if one offers information on ID requirements or the right to receive a provisional ballot?"
Blackwellâ€™s directive does mention a past court ruling that loitering statutes cannot be applied to prohibit exit polling activities within 100 feet of designated polling areas.
On September 26, a judge ruled that "it would be unlawful, and a violation of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, to interpret, apply or enforce Ohioâ€™s election loitering statutes, to prohibit exit polls within 100 feet of polling places."
Blackwellâ€™s office tells elections officials that "to the extent possible, the Statutes should be construed to protect the fundamental right to vote and the freedom of speech."
Last Tuesday, news organizations that use exit polling data â€“ ABC, CNN, CBS, FOX News, NBC and the Associated Press â€“ challenged Blackwell in court by asking the judge to "put an end to the Secretaryâ€™s gamesmanship" by rescinding the directive and enforcing the earlier court decree.