State elections officials to discuss reforms
Ohio's Blackwell is among secretaries of state accused of partisan bias.
COLUMBUS (AP) -- States' top elections officials, accused of playing partisan politics, are hearing calls for changing the nature of their office.
Secretaries of state, at a meeting next month in Washington, D.C., will discuss whether it's appropriate for them to actively campaign for candidates whose elections they oversee.
The public must be assured "that we are not participating in any type of manipulation at that level," said Rebecca Vigil-Giron, New Mexico's secretary of state and president of the national group.
The ideas have been tossed around since Florida's disputed presidential election in 2000. The latest discussion is prompted by criticism of Ohio's Republican elections chief, an honorary Bush campaign co-chairman in the state that ultimately returned Bush to the White House, and possible federal legislation seeking to ban campaigning by state election officials.
A national concern
Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell was criticized by Ohio Democrats and voter advocates, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP. All Ohio Republican officeholders were considered co-chairmen.
Blackwell drew new criticism last week with the revelation that he sent a letter to Republican donors thanking them for helping deliver Ohio for Bush.
Vigil-Giron, a Democrat, said she had stumped for Al Gore four years ago but felt better sitting out the campaign for Democrat John Kerry.
Secretaries of state are also chief elections officials in 39 states. All 50 identify with a political party, but some are appointed instead of elected. Several others also have been criticized for how they spend their free time:
In Arizona, the state Democratic Party called on Republican Secretary of State Jan Brewer to resign, criticizing her for her role as a Bush campaign co-chairman.
In California, state Sen. Jeff Denham, a Republican, has proposed a constitutional amendment to make the office nonpartisan following allegations that Democratic Secretary of State Kevin Shelley misspent federal election money. Messages seeking comment on the accusations were left for Shelley.
Georgia in 2001 banned secretaries of state from having any financial role in the campaign of a candidate whose election they would certify. And a bill that never made it out of an Ohio Senate committee last year would have prohibited the secretary of state from serving in federal, state and local campaigns.
Campaign role criticized
Blackwell "pushed the envelope as hard as any secretary of state ever," said James Ruvolo, the Ohio chairman of the Kerry campaign.
"Once you are elected there is an expectation you will not be the leading partisan," Ruvolo said. "He shouldn't be the head cheerleader, and I think that's where he's gone wrong."
During the quashed congressional challenge of Ohio's electoral vote, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, pledged to introduce a bill banning state election officials from overseeing any national elections in which they've campaigned for one of the partisan candidates.
Jo Ann Davidson, the former Ohio House speaker recently nominated to be co-chairman of the Republican National Party, defended Blackwell.
"It was strictly honorary. He was invited to all the events in which the president was in, but he was not in the inside operational part of the campaign in any way, shape or form," she said.
Blackwell, a candidate for governor in 2006, dismisses the criticism as "cheap political talk."
He says people have already forgotten the victory he handed Democrats by ruling that independent candidate Ralph Nader was ineligible for the Ohio ballot