Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Ohio legislature to vote on controversial ballot access bill this week

Third_PartiesToday, the Ohio General Assembly could pass a controversial ballot access bill that limits the ability of third parties to get their candidates names on the ballot.

The Senate passed a version of the bill last month by a wide margin. But, the bill faced difficulties in the House where the bill's restrictions were eased in order to secure its narrow passage--52 to 46 votes. Senate Republicans were ready to pass the substitute bill, but it was stymied at the last minute:

Senate Minority Leader Eric Kearney, a Cincinnati Democrat, noticed that the House version of the bill didn't include a clause requiring minor parties to collect at least 500 signatures each from at least half of Ohio's 16 congressional districts.

State Sen. Bill Seitz, the Cincinnati Republican sponsoring the legislation, said the House of Representatives did not intend to take that language out.

As  a result, the Senate voted not to accept the House version of the bill, leaving the issue in limbo until the legislature reconvenes next week.

However ready Senate Republicans may have been, their willingness to support the House's less restrictive version of the bill apparently has evaporated. After sending it to conference committee to correct the ostensible oversight, Senate Republicans now want to strengthen the bill's restrictions on third party ballot access. This week, Sen. Seitz (R), submitted compromise language to the committee:

Seitz's new language would require parties such as the Libertarians and the Greens to collect about 28,000 signatures, including at least 500 signatures each from at least half of Ohio’s 16 congressional districts, to continue to remain recognized by the state for next year’s elections.

Starting in 2015, those thresholds would rise: activists would have to collect signatures equal to 1 percent of the last presidential or gubernatorial vote -- about 56,000 votes in the 2012 general election -- to win party recognition. To stay on the ballot, parties would have to garner 3 percent of the vote in a presidential or gubernatorial election.

This language dramatically changes the House version of the bill. The new language nearly triples the signature requirement for minority party recognition on the 2014 ballot (from 10,000 to 28,000 signatures); and, it would double that requirement starting in 2015. Sen. Seitz's compromise also changed the percentage of the vote required for minority parties to retain state recognition from two to three percent in a presidential or gubernatorial election.

Given the bill's struggles in the House, its chances of success now appear to be fading. And, time is running out. As The Columbus Dispatch reports, "The bill needs to be signed by Wednesday [Nov. 6] for it to take effect on Feb. 5, the filing deadline for primary elections." Senate Republicans will have to tread lightly to secure support from skeptical House Republicans, whose support they will need.

Democrats and other minor parties believe that the bill is unconstitutional. Libertarians, in particular, believe that the bill is specifically targeted at their 2014 gubernatorial candidate who some believe could disrupt the reelection efforts of incumbent Gov. John Kasich (R). They have said that they will challenge the bill in court if it passes.

As CRL&P has observed, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the previous Ohio law governing minority party ballot access in 2006. In Libertarian Party of Ohio v. Blackwell, 462 F.3d 579, the court invalidated an Ohio law requiring political parties to nominate candidates through primary elections. The law also established a deadline for filing petitions of nomination with the Secretary of State at 120 days prior to primary elections. According to the court, "[T]he restrictions at issue in this case serve to prevent a minor political party from engaging in the most fundamental of political activities--recruiting supporters, selecting a candidate, and placing that candidate on the general election ballot in hopes of winning votes and, ultimately, the right to govern." According to the court, Ohio's ballot access law violated the First Amendment right of association.

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