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TRUMBULL COUNTY Judge halts hearings on voter registrations

By John Goodall

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Hearings are expected to go ahead in Mahoning and Columbiana counties.
WARREN -- A federal judge in Cincinnati handed down a ruling that threatens to forestall challenges to the registrations of 449 voters in Trumbull County.
Joshua Garris of Mineral Ridge challenged the validity of the Trumbull County voter registrations. The challenges, similar to those filed by Republicans in several other counties, allege that the voters are not residents in the precincts where they are registered.
As evidence, the challenges cited a piece of mail that had been sent to the voter from the county board of elections, but returned as undeliverable.
In most cases, the returned mail was a notice about a change in the voter's precinct, said board of elections assistant director Rokey Suleman.
Hearings Friday
Hearings on the cases were scheduled for Friday morning. Similar hearings for 115 cases in Mahoning County were scheduled for today, and hearings for 49 cases in Columbiana County are scheduled for Friday.
But late Wednesday afternoon, U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott issued a temporary restraining order preventing boards of elections in six Ohio counties, including Trumbull, from holding hearings planned for today and Friday, said Trumbull County Assistant Prosecutor James Saker, who represents the Trumbull County Board of Elections.
However, the ruling could be appealed to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and possibly reversed in time for the elections board hearings to be held, Saker said.
"It is a procedural mess," he said.
Named in the lawsuit, filed by the Democratic Voter Protection Program, were Franklin, Lawrence, Medina, Cuyahoga, Scioto and Trumbull counties.
Republicans challenged about 35,000 voters statewide based on undeliverable mail.
Voters' rights assured
Regardless of whether hearings are held, no one in Trumbull County will lose their right to vote based solely on one undeliverable piece of mail, Saker said.
"The right to vote is a fundamental liberty," he said. "You can't take away something like that on something as skimpy as a piece of returned mail."
Tuesday, letters were sent out to notify each of the challenged voters of the hearings. The notification letters were mailed to the same address the post office previously found undeliverable.
There are several reasons why mail could be returned from a valid voting address, Suleman said. The voter may be in college, in the military or use a post office box, he said.
As well, returned mail could result from an error by the board of elections or the post office, he said.
Whether or not the hearings are held, these voters could still be challenged when they arrive at their polling places.
Challengers at the polls
This year, for the first time, Republicans and Democrats have registered challengers to work at polling stations. They will likely work from lists to question voters who they suspect are in the wrong precinct or are not properly qualified to vote, said Trumbull County Board of Elections Director Norma Williams.
Those challenges will be decided by workers at the polls, she said. People who have moved will be directed to the correct precinct.