Over strong objections from Democrats, a Republican-backed bill clarifying the time citizens have to circulate petitions to put issues on the statewide ballot cleared the legislature on Wednesday and headed to the governor’s desk for his signature.
Democrats, who have used petition campaigns to successfully challenge the Republican majority on collective bargaining rights and election law changes, blasted Senate Bill 47 as an attack on basic rights given voters under a constitutional amendment approved in 1912. The bill would have the effect of reducing the amount of time groups have to gather signatures for initiatives and referenda, holding to the amendment’s 100-day limit.
There are solid reasons behind the change. The current practice allows groups to continue gathering signatures after submitting an initial batch, due 90 days after the start of petitioning. Once those petitions are checked for valid signatures, another 10 days are allowed under the 1912 amendment to gather more signatures, if needed. The trouble is, the amount of time it takes to check the first batch can vary, lately from 16 days to 58 days.
Such a wide variation is unfair, not to mention an invitation to political manipulation. Rather than “a solution in search of a problem,” as Democrats protest, the bill offers a reasonable way to make sure everyone has an equal chance to get an issue before voters or challenge a new law.
Whether 100 days is enough time should be a matter of bipartisan compromise, as should other updates to state election laws. What’s certain is that it is far easier to circulate petitions today than a century ago, when voters thought 100 days was appropriate. As with other election matters in this battleground state, a lawsuit over the time available for petitioning too easily could result. Ohio can do better than risk litigation over a system that tolerates unequal access to the ballot.