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Published: 7/15/2008

Ohio voters may face host of statewide issues

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - Ohio's Nov. 4 ballot could be packed again with statewide issues ranging from casino gambling to sick leave, adding to the pressure on county boards of election to scrutinize every petition signature for error or fraud.

So it should come as little surprise that voters will be confronted with a ballot issue on ballot issues. The state will seek to move up petition deadlines to give counties and courts more time to study petitions.

"When we did Reform Ohio Now [in 2005], it was like coordinating a massive wedding taking place in 88 different places," said Catherine Turcer of the government watchdog, Ohio Citizen Action. "It can be really hard for ordinary citizens to get something on the ballot.

"You want to have a fair process that is timely and allows officials to administer the election, but we don't want to make it too difficult to get access to the ballot or we'll have direct democracy in name only," she said.

So far, three statewide issues have been officially sanctioned for the ballot by lawmakers, but if everyone else who has an issue in the works succeeds, Ohio's ballot could contain as many as six. And that's before factoring in local tax levies.

In the last two general elections, absentee ballots were printed and some electronic voting machines were programmed with issues that ultimately failed to qualify for the ballot and for which votes cast were not counted.

In 2007, an effort by strip clubs and adult book stores to repeal a new law restricting their operations fell short of signature requirements, but court fights delayed the decision to pull it from the ballot. A simi-lar situation occurred in 2006 with an attempted repeal of a law cutting benefits for some injured workers.

If voters agree on Nov. 4, the Ohio Constitution would be amended to require all petitions for future proposed constitutional amendments or initiated statutes to be filed at least 125 days before the next regular election, up from the current 90 days.

In the case of a voter referendum on a law recently passed by lawmakers, supporters of the repeal would still have 90 days to file petitions after the law is signed by the governor. But if that time period has not run its course before the 125-day pre-election window opens, the referendum would have to wait until the following year's election. The law would not take effect in the meantime.

The proposal does not change the signature thresholds to qualify for the ballot, but it does force players to start the time-consuming, often expensive process sooner.

"There is still adequate time for people to engage in the initiative process and time to get their signatures," said Rep. Dan Stewart (D., Columbus), a sponsor of the resolution. "It also gives boards adequate time to check those signatures.

"Through just common-sense agreement among all types of folks involved, we came up with a process that saves a lot of money," he said. "The secretary of state spent $1.3 million just on [ballot issues] they could not cancel [in the last two elections]."

Currently, counties have 10 days from the time petitions are filed to check the accuracy of signatures. But by the time the secretary of state's office copies, packs up, and ships the original petitions, a few days may pass before a county starts the review.

Many boards of election incur increased costs for overtime or temporary help to deal with the sudden but brief surge in work load. The new deadlines would widen the window for county review to 20 days.

"It would help us drastically," said Lavera Scott, voter services supervisor. "We always try to save the county as much money as we can. But even when you project for overtime, you never really know how many signatures were actually collected in your county."

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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