Bill to limit referendum process passes House panel

An elections reform bill met opposition Tuesday over a provision that could slow down ballot initiative campaigns before receiving approval from a panel of state lawmakers.

Members of the League of Women Voters, former Democratic Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner and others told lawmakers on the House Policy and Oversight Committee that Senate Bill 47 might draw a constitutional challenge. The Committee approved the bill along party lines, on an 8-5 vote, and could go to a full House vote as early as Wednesday.

The GOP-controlled Senate approved it along party lines earlier this month.

A provision in Senate Bill 47 would give petition circulators 10 days to collect additional signatures if their initial submission falls short of the minimum. Under current law, signatures can be continuously collected while the secretary of state and boards of election validate the initial batch of signatures.

The Ohio Constitution provides 10 days for petitioners to file — not collect — additional signatures. The Constitution also allows laws to be passed to facilitate the process but not in a way “limiting or restricting” it.

“This kind of thinking is why the voters in 1912 decided they had to take matters into their own hands and approve initiated referendum,” Peg Rosenfield, elections specialist for the League of Women Voters of Ohio, told lawmakers Tuesday. “They anticipated lawmakers would weaken them, so prohibited restricting this.”

Bill sponsor Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, told the panel last week that the provision is intended to provide all groups an equal amount of time to collect additional signatures. Seitz said the time it takes to validate petitions has varied from 16 to 58 days since 1997.

Seitz said the disparity creates the opportunity for a secretary of state or county election boards to slow down the validation process so petitioners have more time to collect additional signatures.

The Senate Bill 5 referendum in 2011 would not have been impacted by the provision because that effort turned in more than five times the number of required signatures.

Rep. Rick Perales, a Beavercreek Republican who voted for Senate Bill 47, said the bill isn’t perfect but is an improvement.

“Whether you’re for a referendum or initiative or against it, everyone has the same playing field,” Perales said.

Rosenfield said during the 12 years she worked in the secretary of state’s office, there was never any hesitation to send out signatures for validation. She said this provision is a solution in search of a problem.

“Initiatives and referendum are bothersome and maybe if we didn’t have any, life would be simpler,” Rosenfield said. “We have them as a safety valve and I don’t think we want to make the safety valve more difficult.”

The petition process was added to the Ohio Constitution in 1912. Since then, the constitution has been amended 120 times, initiated by lawmakers or citizens and approved by voters. Ohioans can also write a law through an initiated statute and call a vote on passed legislation through a referendum.

Petitioners must collect a certain number of valid signatures of eligible Ohio voters to be eligible for the ballot. The secretary of state then sends these signatures to county election boards to check each one against voter registration rolls.

Lynn Buffington, a Greene County resident who has participated on several petition campaigns, said the freeze would hurt smaller campaigns that lack the funds or network to start up a campaign once the secretary of state has validated signatures.

“This is the way that you take power away,” Buffington said. “You do it in a complicated way that’s harder to argue against, that’s harder for people to understand, but is effective.”

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