COLUMBUS - Banking that Ohio is ripe for rebellion amid scandals reaching as high as the governor's office, groups inside and outside Ohio are pushing the most pervasive constitutional changes to the state's election process in decades.
Three proposed amendments aimed at the Nov. 8 ballot would take the remapping of congressional and state legislative districts after each U.S. Census out of the hands of elected officials.
The secretary of state would be stripped of his authority to oversee elections, voters could cast ballots as early as 35 days before an election without question, and campaign contribution limits that lawmakers enacted just months ago would be dramatically rolled back.
"The atmosphere has changed. The notion of reform of any kind, whether it's campaign finance reform or election reform, is much more salient today," said Herb Asher, political science professor emeritus at Ohio State University and a member of the nonprofit Reform Ohio Now petition effort.
The proposed constitutional amendments are an outgrowth of a dinner conversation over the plight of the Democratic Party in Ohio soon after the re-election of President Bush in November.
At the table were Paul Tipps, powerful Columbus lobbyist and a former chairman of the state Democratic Party; Ron Alexander, president of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association; and Andrew Douglas, former Republican state Supreme Court justice and now OSCEA executive director.
Supporters - including such groups as Common Cause, Ohio AFL-CIO, Ohio Environmental Council, Ohio Federation of Teachers, and Planned Parenthood - herald the movement as a voter-driven backlash to one-party control of state government.
Opponents, chiefly Republicans, describe it as an effort driven by interests from California, New York, and elsewhere seeking to redesign the election landscape of battleground Ohio.
"This is being funded by a tremendous amount of out-of-state money," said Rep. Kevin DeWine (R., Fairborn), author of an election-reform bill passed in December, portions of which would be undone by these constitutional amendments.
"Who resides in the governor's mansion and who is speaker of the House or Senate president are not the only things they care about," he said. "They're trying to figure out a way to swing back the White House in 2008 in Ohio and other states."
Reform Ohio Now said it has raised $500,000. In addition to OFT and the Ohio Public Interest Research Group, its benefactors consist of Alida R. Messenger of Minnesota, daughter of John D. Rockefeller, III; the California-based TheRestofUs.org; and the New York-based Rockefeller Family Fund, Philanthropic Collaborative Inc., and Public Interest Projects Inc.
Even some groups seeking reform in Ohio for years have quietly expressed suspicion of an effort they say was introduced without their input.
"There are people from out of state who are interested in this," said Ned Wigglesworth, an analyst with TheRestofUs.org, an organization also involved in election-reform efforts in California, Florida, and Oregon.
"The primary impetus for this is the people of Ohio," he said. "The people who are running the show are from Ohio. There's a lot of volunteers from Ohio who are out there gathering signatures, and, obviously, the only people who can sign these petitions are registered Ohio voters."
In front of supermarkets and libraries, volunteers and paid signature-gatherers, hired by California-based National Petition Management at 50 cents to $1 per signature, have gathered 350,000 signatures of registered voters toward a goal of 450,000 statewide by the Aug. 10 deadline.
Its hope is that at least 322,899 valid signatures will survive reviews by county boards of elections and potential legal challenges. To qualify, the effort must gather the equivalent of 10 percent of those who voted in the 2002 gubernatorial election statewide and meet a 5 percent threshold in at least 44 of Ohio's 88 counties.
Mr. Tipps said the growing number of people involved in the effort realized early that they needed professionals to reach the signature hurdle by the deadline.
"If you're in Ohio, Pennsylvania, or Michigan, you go to California," he said. "California has ballot issues all the time. They have companies that have developed the most sophisticated and competent methods of collecting signatures."
The three RON questions, an effort primarily driven by Democrats, and a separate constitutional amendment capping future growth in state spending, pushed by conservative Republicans, appear to have the best shot of reaching the ballot among a number of petitions circulating.
"In this year of political upheaval, this would seem to be the perfect time to have this on the ballot, a perfect time to have this conversation about what makes for good government and good elections," said Catherine Turcer of government watchdog Ohio Citizen Action.
But the organization plans to wait to see if the three election-related questions qualify for the ballot before deciding whether to endorse them. The League of Women Voters has also yet to take a position.
The centerpiece of the reforms is overhaul of the way congressional and state House and Senate seats are redrawn to adjust for population shifts after each U.S. Census.
House Minority Leader Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island), however, has decided he believes they can only help Democrats, at least in the short term.
"I don't assume anything except the next election two years away," he said. "I recognize not all Democrats may like this 10 years from now, but Republicans may also not like it 10 years from now."
Currently, the Republican-controlled General Assembly redraws the state's 18 congressional districts, voting much as it does any other bill.
The 33 state Senate districts and 99 House districts are redrawn by an apportionment board consisting of the governor, attorney general, auditor, House speaker, Senate president, and one legislative appointee from each party.
Twenty-four years ago, voters decisively rejected a proposed constitutional amendment to junk that system in favor of an independent commission. Reform Ohio Now, banking that the reaction will be different this time, proposes a five-member board on which no elected official would sit.
The first two members would be appointed by the longest serving Ohio Courts of Appeals judges, one from each party, and then they would select the remaining three.
The amendment would require the panel to select maps submitted by others that have the greatest number of competitive districts while fracturing the fewest political subdivisions, all while complying with a federal mandate not to dilute minority voting clout.
The amendment would limit redistricting to once a decade in the year following the latest U.S. Census-with a single exception. A new map would be drawn using the new system in 2007.
"It seemed a little odd to go to voters in 2005 and ask for something that wouldn't take effect until 2012, especially if you believe the current system is flawed," said Mr. Asher.
Democrats nationally had chastised Texas and Colorado Republicans two years ago for prematurely redrawing congressional districts and Ohio Democrats cried foul when word leaked that Republicans were pondering the same thing.
"These are the same people supporting this initiative who railed against (U.S. House Majority Leader) Tom DeLay and his redistricting of Texas a couple of years ago outside the normal process," said Mr. DeWine. "Now they've come up with a plan to do it in Ohio, which is absolute hypocrisy at its best."
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.
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