The Ohio Constitution was amended in 1912 to give voters the ultimate safety valve — the ability to initiate laws and constitutional amendments and overturn laws passed by the legislature. The power to take an issue to the ballot by gathering enough signatures recently has provided Ohioans the opportunity to gamble in casinos and overturned a statute limiting collective bargaining in the public sector.
This week, on a party-line vote, the Republican-led state Senate approved a bill that would, in effect, reduce the time allowed for campaigns to circulate petitions. Democrats, who backed the repeal of the collective bargaining law in 2011 and threatened a referendum last year on a controversial elections law (which ended up getting repealed by the legislature), strongly objected. They see a plan to suppress such efforts in the future.
The criticism isn’t persuasive. The problem is, petition circulators keep gathering signatures after an initial batch of petitions has been turned in to the secretary of state’s office for checking. That review process, which involves sending petitions to county boards of elections, takes anywhere from 16 days to 58 days. If it is determined that more signatures are needed, the state constitution permits another 10 days to gather them.
So, instead of a 100-day period specified in the constitution (an initial 90 days to turn in petitions plus an additional 10 days, if needed), circulators have been getting between 116 and 158 days. The lack of uniformity is unfair and runs counter to the intent of the 1912 amendment.
The current system also opens up the possibility that the secretary of state and members of elections boards could drag their feet to give certain campaigns more time to gather signatures, providing an unfair advantage to certain causes, or, by working quickly, damage others.
Some Democrats call the principle of uniformity a “buzzword.” The reality is far different. Giving everyone equal time to get an issue on the ballot is about making sure the ultimate safety valve works in a way that treats all the same and avoids partisan manipulation. Those who think 100 days aren’t enough can put an amendment on the ballot.