There is perhaps no conflict of interest quite like the legislature passing a bill dealing with minor parties. The major parties, which control the Ohio House and Senate, generally don’t like third parties because they can siphon away enough votes in a close election to affect the result.
Many minor-party candidates face difficulties, from the moment they decide to run. County boards of elections are run by two Democrats and two Republicans, a partisan balancing act that continues throughout the organizations. If a Libertarian has a question about nominating petitions, he or she will find it obvious that nobody really cares.
A fast-moving bill that has passed the Senate and is now before the House would make political life even more difficult for the smaller parties by changing the law under which they operate, just as they are looking ahead to 2014. One victim could be Charlie Earl, the Libertarian candidate for governor.
In this case, Democrats appear to be sympathetic to objections voiced by Earl and others, while the Republican-dominated House and Senate are acting like the partisans who stand behind the counter at boards of elections.
The reason? In a fight next year between Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, and Ed FitzGerald, a Democrat, it’s a sure thing that Earl would take votes away from Kasich.
Given the history (Libertarian Ken Matesz got 2.4 percent of the vote in the governor’s race of 2010), it might not be that many votes, but the Republicans have strong majorities in the House and Senate to give Kasich some insurance.
And, after all, Kasich was elected in 2010 by just two percentage points over Democratic incumbent Ted Strickland.
There is no question the legislature needs to do something about minor parties. Ohio law on minor parties was found unconstitutional by the federal courts in 2006, mainly because the parties had to file 120 days before the primaries, which the federal courts found to be an unconstitutional burden. After all, how are you going to get people interested that far before a general election?
What followed were efforts by Ken Blackwell’s successor in the office of secretary of state, Jennifer Brunner, to resolve the situation by issuing directives. The federal courts didn’t like that, either.
But there are questions about doing something with the 2014 elections right around the corner, which would require Earl and others to start over again in their petitioning. So far, efforts by Democrats to put off the changes Republicans have in mind until 2015 have failed.
Although the bill would shift the filing deadline for minor parties to 125 days before next year’s general election, it would keep a fairly high signature requirement, 1 percent of the votes cast in the most recent election for governor or president. That sounds good, except that the Libertarians say it would take them about 18 months to gather the 56,000 signatures that would be necessary, based on their past petition drives.
The 1 percent threshold is the same as before, but Republicans added a twist by requiring a minimum number of signatures from congressional districts. For minor party organizations strapped for cash, that’s a tough job.
For a minor party to keep its status for the next four years, it would have to get at least 3 percent of the vote in the following gubernatorial or presidential election. That’s less than the 5 percent under the old law, but still a hurdle because the standard is pegged to races for governor or president. Those are tough, expensive contests, even for the major parties.
The standard also ignores the lesson taught by Ross Perot’s Reform Party, which tried to grow from the top down instead of the bottom up. In other words, successes at the local, legislative or congressional levels wouldn’t count for anything for minor parties trying to keep their status.
Green and Libertarian party leaders weren’t consulted in advance about the bill, introduced by state Sen. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican. Libertarians now fear they would not make the ballot in 2014, then face difficulties in 2016 because of the high turnout in a presidential election year. Minor parties could be stymied until 2018, when Kasich could be ending a second term.
What Libertarians call the “John Kasich Re-election Protection Act” could mean not just the end of Charlie Earl’s campaign, but the slow strangulation of minor parties in Ohio politics. Over time, the major parties have proved adept at stealing the themes and issues brought forward by minor parties. Still, the shutdown fighting in Washington has voters in a snit as 2014 approaches, and they might be in the mood to consider alternatives, if any make it to the ballot.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.