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Ohio politicians exempt themselves from petition prohibition

By   /   September 24, 2013  /   No Comments

By Maggie Thurber | for Ohio Watchdog

STATEHOUSE IRONY: Ohio politicians banned anyone except Ohioans from circulating referendum petitions, but exempted candidates from the law.

What is it about politicians that they think they can pass laws for the masses and then exempt themselves?

Congress did this recently with the Affordable Care Act, but state legislatures are happy to do the same, as Ohio recently demonstrated.

In June, the General Assembly passed, and Gov. John Kasich signed, S.B. 47, which places new limits on ballot initiatives and referendums.

The law prohibits anyone except an Ohio resident from gathering signatures on a petition to place a ballot issue before voters. It also prohibits groups from collecting additional signatures while the initial petitions are being validated by the boards of elections.

However, this applies only to issues — not to candidates — because the Republican-led General Assembly exempted themselves, and all other candidates, from the residency restriction.

The 1851 Center for Constitutional Law has already filed a lawsuit in federal court to immediately enjoin Ohio from enforcing the law. It was filed on behalf of Ohioans for Workplace Freedom, the group working to put a right-to-work amendment on the ballot, and Cincinnati for Pension Reform, which the 1851 Center says incurred significant costs complying with the requirement to use only in-state petitioners.

And it may have had an effect on the effort to overturn the ban on Internet cafes. The Committee to Protect Ohio Jobs had to stop collecting signatures while the secretary of state checked their initial filings.

They were short the required number, and now have only 10 days in which to make up the difference.

Ohio’s rules are already complicated. In order to get a referendum of a law on the ballot, petitioners need to gather signatures from registered voters. The number needed is equal to six percent of the total votes cast for governor in the last gubernatorial election. But petitioners also need to ensure signatures represent at least 3 percent of the last gubernatorial vote in at least half of the state’s 88 counties.

The signature requirements are partly to show that an issue has statewide interest and support, but it doesn’t make the process easy, and with the new ban on the long-standing practice of continuing to collect signatures while the first submissions are validated, it’s even less so, even if that provision is consistent with the Ohio Constitution.

“SB 47 consists of a set of back-door mechanisms that have the effect of eliminating initiative and referendum in Ohio, expunging the average citizen from participating in the political process without the assistance of politicians, and strengthening politicians’ monopoly on lawmaking,” said Maurice Thompson, executive director of the 1851 Center.

Thompson said the new law drives up the cost of ballot issues and effectively ends grassroots drives.

“Initiative and referendum supply an important check on arbitrary government,” he said, noting it allows citizens to take lawmaking power into their own hands, “rather than begging the Legislature for change.”

“And as with all regulations,” he added, “the politically powerful will find a way to be heard, whether through paying the higher costs or simply lobbying legislators more — it’s the average Ohioan that S.B. 47 leaves out in the cold.”

When the new restrictions passed, House Speaker William Batchelder, R-Medina, praised the measure as a tool to “further guarantee the protection” of Ohioans’ right to petition the Legislature through ballot initiatives and referendums.

“Because of this legislation, we can provide better opportunity for all Ohioans to have their voices heard without fear of a system that benefits some more than others,” he said in a statement.

A system that doesn’t benefit some more than others when legislators exempted themselves from the same restrictions on signature gatherers?

Oh, the irony.

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Maggie Thurber is a contributor to Ohio Watchdog. Contact her at maggie@ohiowatchdog.org and follow her on Twitter @maggie82.

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