Bill passes making it tougher to get issues on ballot

Senate Bill 47 makes several changes to election law, but only the provision changing the procedure around citizen-driven ballot initiatives has caused debate. Senate Bill 47 passed the GOP-controlled House along party lines on Wednesday, 56-37, and the Senate agreed with the House changes.

Ohio Democratic Party spokesman Jerid Kurtz told the Dayton Daily News the party will challenge the bill’s constitutionality if Kasich signs it into law.

The bill makes several changes backed by good government groups and the Ohio Association of Election Officials such as allowing county election boards to purchase supplies in bulk. But Senate Bill 47 also tweaks the petition process for repealing state laws or proposing new laws or changes in the Ohio Constitution, a right established in 1912.

Under current law, petitioners can continue to collect signatures while the Ohio Secretary of State and county election boards validate an initial batch of signatures against voter rolls. If groups fall short, the Ohio Constitution allows 10 days to file additional signatures with the secretary of state.

Senate Bill 47 freezes collection while signatures are being validated and counted. Bill sponsor Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, said the change equalizes the time groups have to collect additional signatures, noting the counting period has taken from 16 to 58 days since 1997.

Democrats said that provision was a solution in search of a problem, noting several people testified against that part of the bill but only the bill’s sponsor testified in support.

“The right to referendum is a very important check that people have to push back the abuses of this legislature,” said Rep. Kathleen Clyde, D-Kent. “This bill is a direct attack on that right.”

About one in four citizen-initiated ballot issues passes, according to records from the Ohio Secretary of State’s office. Amendments and issues sponsored by state lawmakers have a better track record, passing two-thirds of the time.

Several big issues have passed through the citizen-initiated system. In 1936, voters chose to prohibit taxing food consumed off site. In 1977, voters blocked the General Assembly’s attempt to allow Ohioans to register to vote on Election Day. Most recently, Ohio voters enshrined four casinos into the gambling section of the Ohio Constitution.

Volunteers behind the effort to repeal last session’s elections reform bill, House Bill 194, said they would not have collected the required signatures if this bill had been law.

In a statement, House Speaker William Batchelder, R-Medina, who voted for the changes, said he fully supports the right to ballot initiative and referendum and they should remain worthwhile options for keeping government accountable. Batchelder said SB 47 takes the politics out of the petition-validation process so the collection of signatures is uniform.

“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.

The House passed another elections bill on Wednesday that codifies several procedures already in place: compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act at all polling places, allowing voters to cast ballots if they are in line when their polling place closes and access to polling places for journalists.

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