In a unanimous, tersely worded opinion, the Ohio Supreme Court this week ended the battle of the ballot between the Summit County Board of Elections and Kevin Coughlin, a former state senator seeking to run as a nonpartisan candidate for Stow Municipal Court clerk. The court correctly found no merit in the board’s argument that Coughlin’s history of running as a Republican disqualified him from filing as a nonpartisan.
The board’s decision to disqualify Coughlin, made on a unanimous, bipartisan vote, reflected a political agenda more than sound legal thinking. When Coughlin filed for the fall ballot, each party already had a candidate and wanted to avoid a three-way race. Diana Colavecchio, a Democrat appointed to the job to fill a vacancy, and Frank Larson, the Republican mayor of Munroe Falls, lack Coughlin’s ballot exposure.
In its decision ordering Coughlin on the ballot, the Supreme Court bluntly dismissed the board’s core contention, that a standard that normally applies to independent candidates also applies to Coughlin. To run as an independent, candidates must separate themselves from their party. But, the court found, Coughlin properly filed for the nonpartisan ballot, where no candidate is labeled, so his political history was irrelevant.
Ohio law calls for the high court to step in quickly to resolve disputes that affect access to the ballot, a fundamental right. It has done so in the Coughlin case, serving a reminder to the board about its obligation to act with far more care.