An Election at Ground Zero

Judy Hoffman '73 navigates the complexities of Ohio's election laws

Judy Hoffman '73 is sitting behind her desk on the sixteenth floor of the Borden Building in downtown Columbus, Ohio, when the telephone rings.

The phone interrupts constantly: It's less than three weeks before the November general election, and as the chief elections counsel for the Ohio secretary of state, Hoffman wrestles with most of the legal controversies swirling around the upcoming vote. This year, with the presidential race and other issues so closely contested, controversies abound.

The caller, a colleague in the office, wants to discuss a court ruling against the defendant secretary of state by U.S. District Judge James Carr about provisional voting. This is just one of many thorny questions that Hoffman grapples with daily, for her job involves advising the secretary of state about all aspects of election law. That means, among other things, handling lawsuits against the office and helping county election boards navigate the state's voting laws. The goal is both clear and complex: to ensure that elections in Ohio are run cleanly and fairly.

As Hoffman talks to the staffer on the phone, she learns that Judge Carr is, like herself, a Kenyon graduate.

"Really? He is? How can someone from Kenyon be wrong?" she says, smiling broadly to a visitor in her office.

Hoffman doesn't know Carr--he graduated in 1962, eleven years before she did--but she has a connection with another key player in this year's election: Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. She and Kerry attended law school together at Boston College; both graduated in 1976. "Law school classes are small, so he was in a lot of my courses," Hoffman recalls. "I saw him pretty much every day. But on a personal level, I found it difficult to get to know him."

Hoffman's interest in the law dates from her Cleveland childhood. Movies like To Kill a Mockingbird impressed her, as did the courtroom triumphs of Perry Mason on television. She chose Kenyon for its academic reputation as well as its bucolic setting and graduated in three years, as part of the first class that included women.

A political science major, Hoffman credits Harry Clor (now an emeritus professor) as one of her major influences and a friend to this day. Indeed, when Hoffman initially had some doubts about staying in law school, Clor helped her persevere. "Professor Clor wrote me letters of support urging me to continue," she says. "He is one reason I graduated."

Another professor, historian Roy Wortman, was partly responsible for her return to Ohio. After law school, Hoffman entered private practice in Boston. At Wortman's suggestion, she applied for a job at the Ohio Legislative Service Commission (LSC), a nonpartisan office that drafts legislation for members of the Ohio General Assembly. She got the job and ended up working at the LSC for twenty-two years, during which she developed an expertise in writing election law.

"I'm in the unique position now of interpreting and administering the laws that I wrote in my previous job," she says, laughing at the irony.

"It took me about four hours in my present position to learn that real life is different from statutes," she says. "When members of boards of elections call me with problems and questions--which is how I spend much of my day--I know that we never thought of some of these issues when we drafted the laws. Real life is very different."

The multivolume Ohio Revised Code dominates Hoffman's bookshelf. Title 35, which deals with election law, is usually lying on her desk, opened to whatever page covers the issue of the moment. This election season, Hoffman worked on several high-profile lawsuits against her office. For example, the American Civil Liberties Union charged that the state's use of punch-card ballots was unconstitutional because they are error-prone and violate the voting rights of blacks.

While Hoffman was not the trial lawyer in the case (that's handled by the attorney general's office), she provided advice about election law involved in the complaint. She also advised Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell about election issues ranging from provisional voting, to official challengers at the polls, to the thickness of paper on which voter registration forms were printed.

"A lot of the people who call our office or send letters or e-mails are irate," Hoffman says. That was certainly true in 2004, when the usually low-profile office of the secretary of state received extensive scrutiny, often from people with strong points of view. Complaints came from supporters of presidential candidate Ralph Nader after Blackwell ruled that Nader did not qualify to be on the Ohio ballot. Libertarians were upset that their party was denied state recognition because of defective petitions.

Especially in years like this past one, when the electorate was so bitterly divided, Hoffman hears accusations that her office's analyses are tainted by politics. That just isn't true, she says. "The attorneys here are not partisan. Some citizens think that because I work for a Republican secretary of state I have to rule certain ways. But in truth, it really doesn't matter. When I make a recommendation, I only take legal considerations into account."

On Election Day 2004, some observers predicted that Ohio would suffer problems similar to those that marred the 2000 presidential vote in Florida. There was in fact some drama, although it was nothing like Florida's. Several lawsuits were filed that day against the secretary of state, including one that involved long lines in Gambier. Hoffman advised a student who called from one of those lines demanding a ballot, and she subsequently contacted the Knox County Board of Elections to get to the root of the problem prior to a court order being issued.

Two days after the election, Hoffman is still winding down. Things are quieter. She can spend more time with her dog Corky and devote more attention to her role as vice president of the Columbus lawyer's chapter of The Federalist Society, a group of conservatives and libertarians interested in the current state of the legal system.

In fact, with the election over, Hoffman will actually get a two-week break from her office. But she won't get a break from the law--she's been called to jury duty.

--Jeff Grabmeier is assistant director of research communications at Ohio State University. This is his first piece for the Bulletin.

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