Federal court rejects another Republican-passed elections bill


COLUMBUS — A federal court today slapped down another Republican-passed elections bill, this time blocking new restrictions on minor parties' access to the 2014 ballot.

U.S. District Court Judge Michael H. Watson in Columbus issued a preliminary injunction preventing enforcement of the law and ordered GOP Secretary of State Jon Husted to follow through with his original directive automatically giving several small parties spots on the ballot.

The ruling, however, applies only to the 2014 elections.

The Libertarian Party of Ohio, the leader in the court fight, had objected primarily to the retroactive enforcement of what it has dubbed the “John Kasich Re-election Protection Act” after the candidate petition-circulation cycle had already begun. Senate Bill 193 was to take effect on Feb. 5, the current deadline for all candidates to file their petitions to appear on the May primary election ballot.

This would void a 2013 directive issued by Mr. Husted in the face of prior court rulings that automatically granted 2014 ballot access to the Libertarian, Green, Constitution, and Socialist parties.

“The upshot of that provision, along with other provisions in the bill, is that minor parties must start from scratch to qualify for ballot access,” Judge Watson wrote. “Moveover, S.B. 193 completely eliminates minor parties’ access to the primary ballot.

“Hence, if S.B. 193 goes into effect, the nominating petitions already filed by minor party candidates to appear on the 2014 primary election ballot in reliance on (Mr. Husted’s directive) would be nullified, and the time and resources expended on those petitions will have been wasted.”

Under the new law, signed into law by Mr. Kasich in November, minor parties would not have primary elections as the Republican and Democratic parties do. Instead, a small party would have a deadline 125 days before the November general election to file signatures qualifying its party label to appear next to its candidate's name on that ballot alongside the two major party candidates.

If the law had stood for 2014, minor parties would have had to submit enough signatures of registered voters to equal at least 0.5 percent of the vote from the last presidential or gubernatorial election, about 28,000 based on the 2012 election. Of those, 500 would have to come from each of half of Ohio’s 16 congressional districts.

After qualifying for the ballot, the party could stay there for four years as long as its candidate for governor in 2014 or president in 2016 gets at least 2 percent of the Ohio vote. That’s double what the Libertarian presidential candidate got in 2012.

Beginning in 2015, the signature requirement to get the party recognized on the ballot would climb to 1 percent, or roughly 56,000. The candidate’s subsequent vote performance to stay on the ballot for the next four years would be 3 percent.

“The Ohio Legislature moved the proverbial goalpost in the midst of the game,” Judge Watson wrote. “Stripping (the minor parties) of the opportunity to participate in the 2015 primary in these circumstances would be patently unfair.”

The judge noted that Ohio has been operating without a constitutionally valid minor party law since a prior law was struck down in federal court in 2011. He noted the General Assembly waited until Nov. 6 to final passage of a replacement law, undercutting its argument that the legislation was urgently needed.

The minor parties had also urged the judge to declare the law unconstitutional and prevent its enforcement for subsequent elections, but Judge Watson did not immediately address that issue.

The same judge recently put on hold another law passed last year by majority Republicans to raise the bar for proposed constitutional amendments, referendums, and other initiatives to gather signatures to quality for the ballot.