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Third parties may face challenges to make Ohio ballot

Ohio lawmakers are close to approving a new rules for how Libertarians, Greens and other “minor parties” qualify to be listed on statewide ballots, despite objections from those parties that the changes would keep them off future ballots.

Lawmakers were set to pass Senate Bill 193 on Wednesday, but an apparent error in the bill delayed a vote to the middle of next week at the earliest. The Libertarian Party of Ohio has since promised to challenge the law in court.

The House on Wednesday passed the amended bill mostly along party lines in a 52-46 vote. Democrats say the requirements, although revised, are still too strict and attempt to keep minor parties from challenging Republican Gov. John Kasich in 2014. Seven Republicans voted against the measure, and disagreement over the plan within the Republican caucus delayed the bill a day.

The bill aims to rewrite minor party guidelines set in law struck down by the Ohio Supreme Court. Under the House plan, parties automatically qualify for four years of ballot access if they receive 2 percent of the vote cast in the most recent gubernatorial or presidential election. New parties must collect signatures greater than half of 1 percent of the votes cast, or about 28,000. Representatives lowered the threshold to 10,000 for 2014.

But the House voted on a version of the bill that excluded a requirement that 500 signatures each are collected from at least half of Ohio’s congressional districts. The bill’s sponsor Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, noticed the error and asked his Senate colleagues to reject the House changes so it could be addressed in a conference committee, where members from both major parties and both chambers hash out differences in legislation.

The move also buys minor party officials more time to voice their opposition to the bill.

Aaron Keith Harris, communications director for the Libertarian Party of Ohio, said a lawsuit is inevitable if the bill becomes law. Libertarians have sued past secretaries of state over the qualification process.

“We’re not going to quit,” Harris said. “We’re not going to go away, but it could be that all the resources that we have will be expended trying to get on the ballot.”

Harris said “challenger parties” have been seeking legislation since the courts ruled on the issue in 2006 and Seitz’s bill was drafted without their input. He said the bill’s timing and urgency halfway through an election cycle is unnecessary and suspect.

Libertarians have referred to the bill as the “John Kasich Re-Election Protection Act.” Without Libertarians on the ballot, most assume the votes would go toward Republican candidates.

Rep. Rick Perales, R-Beavercreek, questioned the proposal’s timing and wished recognized parties could be grandfathered in but said the House-lowered vote and signature counts made the bill acceptable.

“What we’ve done is put some numbers in there, accommodating the fact it’s the middle of the game, but the numbers will go up for something in the next cycle,” Perales said.

Seitz said allowing parties to submit signatures up to 125 days before the general election, instead of 120 days before the primary, gives parties more time to collect signatures. For next year’s election, Harris said, it means challenger parties will spend nine months collecting signatures for the ballot instead of fundraising and campaigning.

Harris, of Fairborn, plans to run for Ohio secretary of state. He said the bill leaves candidates like him in a fog about whether their work to this point counts and how they are to organize fundraising.

In the last race for governor, Kasich beat Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland with 49 percent of the vote in 2010. Libertarian candidate Ken Matesz received more than 92,000 votes, or 2.39 percent.

Kasich told reporters on Thursday that he did not request the legislation but reform is needed.

“We haven’t had any law here for six or seven years and if you want to run as an independent, that’s good, fine, you sign 2,500 signatures or whatever it is, but if you want to be considered a major party you ought to show that you have a little scale and a little bit of mass and I think that’s reasonable,” Kasich said.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in October showed 30 percent of Americans said they want to vote for a candidate in a party other than the top two.

“We’re not out to get Kasich,” Harris said. “We just want Ohio voters to have a third option.”

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