Ohio voter education effort stalled

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Ohio legislators have frozen funds for a $15 million voter-education advertising and public relations campaign by WPP Group's Burson-Marsteller, New York, amid concerns that it was awarded without bidding and could become a high-priced promotional vehicle for Secretary of State Ken Blackwell's 2006 gubernatorial campaign.

The proposed "Help Ohio Vote" campaign was intended to familiarize the state's 7.2 million registered voters with five new types of electronic voting machines to be used for the first time in the 2004 general election. It would be funded from a $128 million allotment Ohio got from the federal government to replace older voting machines under legislation passed in response to the crisis in Florida and contested results in the 2000 presidential election.

But some Ohio lawmakers from both parties believe the funds would have a bearing on a 2006 campaign in which Mr. Blackwell is expected to face the current Republican state auditor and attorney general in a gubernatorial primary.

Others, such as Sen. Bill Harris, a Republican, believe the money would be better spent improving security of the new machines and are troubled that such a large contract was awarded to an out-of-state agency without competitive bidding.

Though the campaign would require no state money, the Ohio legislature controlling board in charge of releasing funds voted earlier this month to withhold the entire election machine outlay pending further review.

The board is set to reconsider Mr. Blackwell's funding request April 5, but Mr. Harris said last week he supports a call by state Senate President Doug White to have a different joint House-Senate committee investigate the matter and issue a report in 60 days.

Mr. Harris said the size of the voter-education campaign appears excessive. It amounts to more than $2 per voter-proportionate to a $370 million national effort.


But Carlo LoParlo, press secretary for Mr. Blackwell, said education is one of the most important parts of making the new machines work. About 15% of the $15 million would be earmarked for TV advertising in Ohio's 13 media markets, he said. The rest would go to direct mail, a Web site and grassroots events.

Mr. LoParlo said he's uncertain how much other states are spending on voter education associated with replacement of voting machines. But he said California election officials spend "tens of millions of dollars" on voter education each year.

"The fact is [Mr. Blackwell has] been on the statewide ballot three times and will be a fourth time," he said. "Elected officials run for office, but they also have a job," he said, adding that it's natural he would be part of any voter-education campaign. Mr. LoCarlo noted that the state auditor's name is on every check Ohio issues, and the attorney general is mentioned as certifier of results on lottery broadcasts.

The secretary of state's office approached some Ohio agencies about handling the campaign, Mr. LoParlo said, but added "they concluded the scope was too large" for them to handle.

But Northlich, a Cincinnati advertising and public relations agency that handles the state's youth anti-tobacco campaign, for which $38 million in spending is earmarked this year, would have liked to bid on the voter-education effort, too, said Rick Miller, president. He's hoping scrutiny by legislators will open bidding for the work, and plans to participate if he can.

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