Friday, Apr 27, 2018
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Election-reform admendments draw definite battle lines in state

COLUMBUS - Four far-reaching proposed constitutional amendments on Tuesday's ballot are portrayed by supporters at every opportunity as a referendum on Gov. Bob Taft and what they characterize as a pay-to-play atmosphere in the Republican-controlled Statehouse.

Opponents portray it as a power play by largely out-of-state interests seeking to use the Ohio Constitution to get Democrats back into a game voters have repeatedly decided they should sit out.

Either way, the ballot issues represent the most sweeping changes to Ohio election law in decades, affecting congressional and legislative redistricting, election oversight, absentee ballots, and campaign contributions.

As of Oct. 19, both sides have reported raising more than $5 million for the petition campaign that put the questions on the ballot in the first place and the ad wars that have followed.

"Ohio is a bellwether state, and is also the center of political attention," said Jeff Rusnak of the Burges & Burges political strategy group working with Reform Ohio Now, the coalition of labor, environmental, and government watchdog groups pushing the amendments.

He took issue with the characterization by the opposition of Reform Ohio Now as a liberal Democrat effort driven largely by money from Washington, California, and other states frustrated over Ohio's role in keeping George W. Bush in the White House.

"We have over 12,000 volunteers on this campaign, and we had over 500,000 people sign petitions to put these issues on the ballot," Mr. Rusnak said. "We're a very strong, home-grown, grass roots effort."

A recent poll by the University of Akron's Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics showed Issues 2 and 3, those opening wide absentee voting and rolling back campaign contribution limits, are more popular with voters.

But the centerpieces of the Reform Ohio Now movement does not fair as well. Issues 3 and 4 would create two appointed, bipartisan panels to respectively redraw congressional and legislative districts every 10 years and oversee Ohio elections, roles currently filled by elected officials.

Currently, a five-member panel consisting of the governor, secretary of state, auditor, and two state legislators, dominated 4-1 by Republicans in 2001, redraw state legislative districts after each U.S. Census.

Congressional maps are redrawn by the General Assembly and signed into law by the governor like any other bill. Republicans currently control both the executive and legislative branches.

Issue 4 would take that power and give it a new five-member commission on which no elected official could sit, and would, for the first time, make creation of competitive districts the top priority. Reform Ohio Now argues this should reduce manipulation, or "gerrymandering," of district lines for partisan advantage and incumbent protection.

The first two members of the panel would be named by the two most senior judges of opposite parties on the Ohio Court of Appeals, and those two members would then name the remaining three. The board would not draw maps itself, but would rather score and select maps submitted by others.

Issue 5 would strip the secretary of state of his election oversight authority, a reaction to the 2004 election in which Ken Blackwell served as honorary co-chairman of President Bush's re-election campaign in Ohio and was a major force behind the successful anti-gay marriage amendment.

That power would be handed to a new nine-member commission, four members of which would be named by the governor and four named by legislative leaders of the opposite party. The ninth, presumably tie-breaking vote would be named by a unanimous vote of the Ohio Supreme Court.

Athens County Democratic Chairman Susan Gwinn has emerged as a rare Democratic voice against Issues 4 and 5. She broke with the state party, which has officially remained neutral even as a number of Democratic officials have embraced them.

Ms. Gwinn said she believes Democrats are hurting themselves in the long term by reacting to GOP dominance in the short-term, particularly with the new election oversight panel.

"That's a no-brainer," she said. "The tie-breaking vote is the ninth vote and it's a nine-year term. The Ohio Supreme Court is 6-1 controlled by Republicans. We're going to hand over election decisions for nine years to Republicans." The largely Republican opposition group, Ohio First, has pointed to both issues, noting that the roles of elected officials would be replaced by appointed boards.

"These are people who believe Ohioans shouldn't be trusted with their vote," spokesman David Hopcraft said.

Contact Jim Provance at: or 614-221-0496.

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