Three state proposals have the power to change Ohio’s election procedures

Greg M. Schwartz

Three statewide election reform proposals – Issues 3, 4, and 5 – on the ballot next week have the potential to affect all future elections in Ohio.

Each of the three issues, if passed, would amend the state constitution’s laws on electoral procedures, along with Issue 2’s referendum on no-fault absentee ballot voting.

Issue 3 – limiting campaign contributions

If passed, Issue 3 would limit campaign contributions to candidates for the General Assembly to $500 from a political action committee and $1,000 from an individual. It would limit contributions to candidates for statewide office positions to $1,000 from a PAC and $2,000 from an individual.

Issue 3 also would bar corporate contributions to candidates, as well as contributions from people under age 18 unless such contributions are verified to come from that individual’s personal funds.

The amendment also would allow nonprofit organizations to use up to $50 of each member’s dues toward candidate contributions in the organization’s name. Such small-donor PACs could contribute up to $10,000 to a General Assembly candidate and $20,000 to a statewide candidate.

“Ohio has some of the highest campaign contribution limits in the country. Last year, they were raised from $2,500 to $10,000 for state senate and house representatives – it absolutely favors incumbents,” said Kerry McCarthy, a spokesman for Reform Ohio Now, a coalition that advocates passage of Issues 2 through 5.

Ohio House member Kevin DeWine, R-Fairborn, is one of the leaders of Ohio First, a group advocating against Issues 2 through 5. He said Issue 3 has specific campaign finance language that would be a mistake to enact because of the its flaws and loopholes.

“There are lawyers from both sides that have already figured out how to get around it,” DeWine said. “The real issue is that they have created a very lopsided amendment that favors their candidates.”

DeWine said that Issue 3 would give disproportionate power to labor unions.

“They say certain interests can give $10,000 through small-donor PACs, and the easiest way to be one is a labor union,” DeWine said. “What appears to be neutral on its face really isn’t. They have written it so that organized labor has a chance to have a voice 10 to 20 times stronger than the average citizen.”

Issue 4 – redistricting

Issue 4 seeks to alter the state’s system for drawing congressional and legislative districts. Currently, district boundaries are drawn by the Ohio Apportionment Board, which consists of the governor, state auditor, secretary of state and one legislator from each party. Republicans control the board four to one.

Passage of Issue 4 would replace this board with an independent five-member commission. Two of the members would be chosen by sitting judges, with the other three being chosen by the first two appointees or by lot. Thirteen other states will be voting on similar legislation.

RON’s McCarthy said the practical consequence of Issue 4’s passage would be to make incumbent candidates less secure because the task of drawing up new voting districts would be given to an outside commission.

“The current system only protects incumbent politicians,” said McCarthy.

Ohio First’s DeWine concedes that the current system is a flawed one which epitomizes a “to the victor goes the spoils” system. But he said Issue 4 would be a worse alternative.

“Issue 4 would end up creating districts that that run from one end of the state to the other to get the 50/50 ratio to create a competitive district,” DeWine said.

DeWine said that the demonstration maps created by Issue 4’s proponents illustrate the proposal’s flaws.

“Their maps validate my concerns,” DeWine said. “By using competition as the sole factor, you get away from geographical compactness and no longer have to respect community interests.”

DeWine said the lack of challenges to incumbent candidates isn’t due to the districts, but because Democrats haven’t fielded good candidates.

Issue 5 ƒ_” Secretary of State and control of Ohio’s elections

Issue 5 would create a nine-member bipartisan commission to oversee Ohio elections instead of the secretary of state. Four of the panel members would be selected by the governor, and four would be selected by General Assembly leaders of the opposite political party. The Ohio Supreme Court would select a politically unaffiliated person for the ninth position. The panel would serve nine-year terms and be paid a salary.

“The idea is to take the responsibilities out of the hands of an incumbent, self-interested politician and give them to a bipartisan board,” said RON’s McCarthy. “Next year, we may have a situation where the secretary of state (Kenneth Blackwell) may preside over his own election for governor. Whether he can do that objectively is not the main issue, but the appearance of impropriety weakens voter confidence in the system.”

McCarthy analogizes the situation to an arch-rival football game with a biased referee.

“Say the Ohio State Buckeyes show up on game day in Michigan and the referee is wearing a Michigan hat – that threatens the integrity of the game,” said McCarthy. “It further reinforces the notion to voters that their vote doesn’t count.”

Carlo Loparo, spokesman for Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, said that McCarthy’s football game analogy is a bit of a misleading representation.

“Ohio is set up as a bipartisan system. The county boards of election are evenly arranged between Republicans and Democrats,” said Loparo. “Issue 5 takes the process away from an elected official and places authority with a nine-member panel with no accountability (because of their nine-year terms.)”

Loparo said the checks and balances of the system prevent a potential conflict of interest if Blackwell were to preside over his own election for governor.

“The Boards of Election recruit the poll workers, count the ballots, and certify the results in open meetings,” said Loparo. “The chief officer does not have the ability to game the system because of the way it’s set up with these checks and balances.”

Ohio First’s DeWine acknowledges concerns about having a partisan official oversee elections, but like Loparo, doesn’t think Issue 5 is a good solution because of the lack of accountability with the proposed board.

Contact public affairs reporter Greg M. Schwartz at [email protected].