Organization seeks support for reform proposals
Advocates say the three measures will make the election process more fair.
By JEFF ORTEGA
COLUMBUS -- Supporters of three election-reform proposals for the November statewide ballot say they expect to gather enough signatures by early August to place the issues before voters this fall.
"I think things are going very well," Reform Ohio Now spokeswoman Scarlett Bouder said Thursday. "We expect to be on the ballot."
Reform Ohio Now is a nonprofit organization at the head of an effort to place proposals on the ballot that would change the process by which state legislative and congressional districts are drawn.
The organization says it wants to make elections more competitive, to lower political campaign contribution limits and to create an independent state board to monitor elections.
Reform Ohio Now, which has offices in Cleveland and Columbus, said it has gathered about 350,000 signatures from all corners of the state. The organization expects to gather about 100,000 more by the Aug. 10 deadline to submit issues to the secretary of state for the November ballot.
The group must get at least 322,899 valid signatures, roughly 10 percent of the number of Ohioans who voted in the last governor's race, to qualify for the ballot.
Leaders of Reform Ohio Now say they believe the current elective process empowers campaign contributors and protects incumbents at the expense of voters.
"There is a sense of palpable frustration," Bouder said.
The reform effort is gathering steam as Ohio Republicans battle scandals involving investment losses at the Bureau of Workers' Compensation, the state's insurance fund for injured workers and revelations from Republican Gov. Bob Taft that he failed to disclose golf outings paid by others.
Republicans dominate both houses of the Legislature, controlling the Ohio House 60 to 39 and the Senate 22 to 11. Republicans also outnumber Democrats on the state's congressional delegation, 12 to 6.
Republicans have also outnumbered Democrats by as much as a 4 to 1 on the state Apportionment Board, which is made up of the governor, state auditor, secretary of state and one legislative member of each of the political parties.
The board draws the district lines of both House and Senate districts after every census to reflect population shifts. State lawmakers draw boundary lines for Ohio's congressional districts.
Outline of the proposals
Reform Ohio Now is proposing to create an independent board to draw boundaries for legislative districts.
If it makes it onto the ballot and is approved, the proposal would take effect for the 2008 general election. Also, new reapportionment and congressional redistricting plans would be chosen in 2011, the year after the next census, under the proposal.
Another proposal would limit individual political campaign contributions to $2,000 for statewide candidates and $1,000 to legislative candidates and require full disclosure.
Under a recently passed measure, the Ohio Legislature quadrupled most campaign contribution limits raising them to $10,000 from $2,500, an action criticized by some who say the limits end up flooding the system with excessive amounts of special-interest dollars.
A third proposal would, if approved, create a bi-partisan board to administer elections in Ohio. Currently, the secretary of state is the state's chief elections officer.
The reform efforts are drawing interest from good-government groups such as Common Cause, which is providing in-kind support to the effort, as well as unions and environmental groups.
Cross section of voices
Chellie Pingree, president and chief executive officer of Washington, D.C.-based Common Cause, said among concerns in Ohio are what she described as the lack of competitive legislative and congressional races.
"It just doesn't look good for democracy," Pingree said.
House Speaker Pro Tem Charles Blasdel, the No. 2 Republican in the Ohio House, said he wasn't that familiar with the reform proposals, but that they might be worthy of discussion.
"We've had a system in place that has worked for a long time," Blasdel said.
But state Sen. Kevin Coughlin, R-Cuyahoga Falls, put it more bluntly.
"This is a thinly veiled effort by Democrats in Ohio to gain an advantage in future elections," said Coughlin. "They're frustrated with being in the minority in state government. Do it the old fashioned way and go out and win elections. Articulate what you want to do and be judged by the voters."
Dennis White, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said the party has not taken a position or been involved with the proposed ballot issues.
"This is just another example of someone not knowing what's going on," White said, referring to Coughlin's comments.
Reform Ohio Now has raised about $550,000 to support the reform efforts, Bouder said.
Bouder said contributors include the Rockefeller Family Fund, a family philanthropy based in New York City, TheRestofUs.org, a Sacramento, Calif.-based government watchdog group, and others.