COLUMBUS - Ohio voters may not get a chance to decide between dueling smoking bans on Nov. 7 after all.
Secretary of State Ken Blackwell's office yesterday told the tobacco industry, bars, and restaurants that they had fallen nearly 50,000 signatures short of the 322,899 needed to put an exemption-laden ban on indoor public smoking before voters.
Meanwhile, a near-total ban on smoking pushed by a coalition of health organizations was dealt a severe blow by a state appeals court, despite having been certified for the ballot by Mr. Blackwell last week.
The 10th District Court of Appeals in Columbus struck down on a technicality some of the petitions that first put the strict ban before lawmakers nearly nine months ago.
For both groups, the matter is now a race against the clock.
Smoke Less Ohio, which backs the weaker ban, has 10 days to file more signatures. SmokeFreeOhio, backing the strict ban, will ask the Ohio Supreme Court to stay the lower court ruling while it pursues an appeal.
A court can remove an issue from the ballot, regardless of the secretary of state's certification. Voters begin to cast absentee ballots on Oct. 3.
SmokeFreeOhio, which would ban smoking in all indoor public places with few exceptions, was sent to lawmakers in January after the first round of petitions. When lawmakers ignored it, new petitions were circulated to put the issue directly to voters.
Smoke Less Ohio's alternative, a proposed constitutional amendment, would exempt bars, restaurants with enclosed smoking areas, private clubs, bowling alleys, and bingo halls.
If both proposals make the ballot and pass, the weaker ban would prevail, including over anti-smoking laws already enacted by Toledo, Bowling Green, and 19 other cities.
A SmokeFreeOhio spokesman argued its effort shouldn't be penalized because the secretary of state erroneously advised it to list the American Cancer Society as the employer of paid petition circulators instead of the private firm hired by the organization.
"We made every effort to comply with Ohio elections law," said Tracy Sabetta. "The voices of hundreds of thousands of Ohioans should not be silenced because the 10th District believes the secretary of state's advice was wrong."
Meanwhile, more than half the 552,023 signatures submitted by Smoke Less Ohio were found to be invalid by county boards of elections, leaving it nearly 50,000 short. The petitions, however, did clear one hurdle, qualifying in 60 counties. They needed 44.
Smoke Less spokesman Jacob Evans said the coalition never stopped gathering signatures.
"We are already well in excess of twice as many signatures as we were deficient. We are very confident that we'll be on the ballot come November," he said.
Ms. Sabetta said SmokeFree-Ohio also is prepared to submit supplemental signatures on behalf of the stricter measure, but it's unclear whether new signatures can be submitted to fix the first round of petitions.
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