COLUMBUS, Ohio – In the turbulent weeks before and after the presidential election in this battleground state, Kenneth Blackwell's (search) fairness and integrity as Ohio's chief elections officer were called into question at almost every turn.
After all, Blackwell is an ardent Republican and was President Bush's honorary campaign co-chairman.
The Ohio furor — and a similar uproar in Florida during the disputed White House race of 2000 — have raised this question: Should top election officials be allowed to participate in the very campaigns they oversee?
It will be a hot topic at a meeting of the nation's secretaries of state next month. Also, a U.S. senator is promising to propose a ban on campaigning by election chiefs.
The public must be assured "that we are not participating in any type of manipulation," said Democrat Rebecca Vigil-Giron, New Mexico's secretary of state and president of the National Association of Secretaries of State (search).
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.
The issue has risen to prominence largely because of Blackwell, who as Ohio secretary of state oversaw the election in the state that ultimately sent the president back to the White House. Among other things, the conservative black Republican tried to enforce an old rule requiring voter registration forms to be printed on 80-pound paper, and was accused of trying to suppress the black vote by rejecting ballots cast in the wrong precinct.
He also drew criticism more recently when it was disclosed that he sent a letter to GOP donors thanking them for helping deliver Ohio for Bush.
Blackwell "pushed the envelope as hard as any secretary of state ever," said James Ruvolo, the Ohio chairman of John Kerry's campaign. "Once you are elected there is an expectation you will not be the leading partisan. He shouldn't be the head cheerleader, and I think that's where he's gone wrong."
Blackwell, a candidate for governor in 2006, dismissed the criticism as "cheap political talk," and his supporters noted that all Republican officeholders were considered co-chairmen in the Bush campaign.
He said people have already forgotten the victory he handed Democrats by ruling third-party candidate Ralph Nader was ineligible for the Ohio ballot, or his decision to bar all political operatives, including Republicans, from challenging voters' qualifications at Ohio polling places.
"I oversee a bipartisan system that has political appointees all the way through it," Blackwell said. "That's the brilliance of our system."
Jo Ann Davidson, the former Ohio House speaker recently nominated to be co-chairman of the Republican National Party, stressed that people should not read too much into Blackwell's title in the Bush campaign.
"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.
The criticism is similar to what happened in 2000, when Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris (search) was vilified for serving as Bush's campaign co-chair while certifying him the winner when Democrat Al Gore was still seeking recounts.
"I would have thought that Ken Blackwell would have learned from what happened with Katherine Harris, that you don't chair a campaign and also run an election," said Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Democratic secretary of state in the 1980s.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, has pledged to introduce a bill banning state election officials from overseeing any national elections in which they have campaigned for one of the candidates.
The issue has arisen in other states, including Arizona, California and Georgia.
Georgia in 2001 banned secretaries of state from having any financial role in the campaign of a candidate whose election they would certify.
In California, a GOP senator has proposed a constitutional amendment to make the office nonpartisan following allegations that Democratic Secretary of State Kevin Shelley (search) misspent federal election money.
In Arizona, the state Democratic Party called on Republican Secretary of State Jan Brewer (search) to resign, criticizing her for her role as a Bush campaign co-chairman.
But Brewer said voters knew her party and her job description when they elected her.
"I count votes for Republicans, and I count votes for Democrats," she said. "I count them fairly and honestly and would never fudge regardless of who was in the front and who was in the back."