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Blackwell No-Show Riles Ney

It started out as such a simple proposition: The chairman of the House Administration Committee would hold hearings on the implementation of the Help America Vote Act and invite the official in charge of elections from his home state of Ohio, the site of so many questions about the validity of the 2004 presidential contest.

Making things even simpler, both men are Republicans.

But by Wednesday afternoon, it was no longer clear that Chairman Bob Ney and Secretary of State Ken Blackwell occupied the same political orbit.

“I think the secretary of state should be here today,” Ney said at the hearing, echoing eviscerations by ranking member Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.).

In her opening remarks, Millender-McDonald blasted both Blackwell and fellow no-show Florida Secretary of State Glenda Hood (R).

“The arrogance of this secretary of state as well as the one from Florida is really an affront,” she said.

Hood’s spokeswoman said she had a scheduling conflict. But Blackwell’s non-appearance seemed to irk the panel members far more, exacerbated by the fact that he was already in Washington anyway.

As it turns out, Blackwell was in D.C. on Wednesday to lead a previously scheduled board meeting of the Campaign Finance Institute, a nonpartisan research group he co-chairs, and to attend the unveiling of the commemorative Ronald Reagan postage stamp.

Those are the facts. Everything else is a matter of dispute.

In an interview, Blackwell accused Ney and his committee of a political “bait and switch,” essentially using his appearance — of lack thereof — as a scapegoat for what went wrong operationally in last year’s election.

He said he told the panel that he couldn’t make it but was promised that there would be other opportunities to testify. Blackwell said he offered up his “point man” on election reform issues, a suggestion he said the committee initially accepted only to turn down later.

The Ohio secretary of state said he wonders “if in fact they were more interested in having me than having the answers, if they were more interested in having me for show than [looking] at the issues.” Nonsense, Ney contends. In a statement, Ney said that Blackwell never gave a reason that he couldn’t appear and instead gave every indication in staff-level phone conversations that he had no intention to do so.

“The chairman has no desire to engage in a petty exchange with Secretary Blackwell, whom I might add, he has long held in high regard,” said Ney spokesman Brian Walsh. “It is disappointing, though, that the secretary now appears to be misrepresenting the facts.”

Blackwell’s allegations of a bait-and-switch are rooted in what he believes were the committee’s misrepresentation of its agenda.

“Nowhere in the letter … does it say they want to talk about the complaints of the election in 2004,” Blackwell said. “If, in fact, that’s what they wanted to talk about, they should have been clear and upfront. All of a sudden this was about something else.”

But Walsh said he didn’t know how much clearer the committee could be. The stated topic was the implementation of HAVA in the 2004 election, and discussions of the election’s failures would naturally be brought up, along with its successes, he said.

“The stated purpose of this initial hearing was to examine the implementation of the Help America Vote Act in the 2004 election, and Chairman Ney felt that the secretary, as the chief elections officer of Ohio, could provide important insight into that issue,” Walsh added. “It is very difficult to see how that could have been misrepresented to Secretary Blackwell, but it is important to note that the four other secretaries of state who did testify did not have any similar confusion, and the chairman appreciated their participation.”

The committee heard from two panels. The first included members of the Election Assistance Commission, which was created by HAVA in 2003. The second consisted of four state secretaries of state: Chet Culver (D-Iowa), Rebecca Vigil-Giron (D-N.M.), Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) and Ron Thornburgh (R-Kan.).

The dispute between the two Ohio Republicans over Blackwell’s testimony seems to have opened a rift that doesn’t appear to have existed previously.

Blackwell asserted in the interview that his state needs more money to fully implement HAVA, while Ney pointed out during the hearing that Ohio hasn’t spent all of the funds that it was appropriated.

Going forward, House Administration has indicated plans to hold future hearings on elections issues, including voter fraud, voter suppression, the role and impact of 527 committees. Ney also mentioned Wednesday the strong likelihood that he will hold a field hearing in Columbus — a center for many alleged voter irregularities cited in news reports.

Though it hardly reached the same level of vitriol, a similar dispute emerged between House Administration and Hood, the Florida secretary of state.

According to spokeswoman Jenny Nash, Hood told the committee in writing and by phone of her scheduling conflict, but she “welcomes any opportunity to discuss Florida’s success during the 2004 election cycle.”

Walsh said the committee did not receive any information about why Hood couldn’t or wouldn’t appear. “No specific reason was given,” he said.

“If both secretaries would be willing to testify at a future hearing and participate in our efforts to improve elections we would welcome that,” Walsh added.

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