Some judge-race labels sought

It’s the time of the year when members of the Ohio Legislature introduce bills — lots of bills.

My email recently has been bombarded by legislators about proposals they’re submitting hopeful they become law.

One bill, in particular, has attracted my attention.

Two Republicans from each the House and Senate introduced companion bills to change the structure of how the state handles political party affiliations for some judicial candidates.

Currently, all judicial candidates run in partisan primaries and then party labels are removed in the general election.

That means a few candidates could run in Democratic or Republican primaries seeking nominations for seats on municipal or common pleas courts, appeals court or state supreme court. Primary election winners then move to the November general election without D or R next to their names.

The recently introduced Ohio proposal would have candidates seeking seats on only courts of appeals and supreme court run in general elections with party affiliations. It wouldn’t include any other judicial races.

That inconsistency seems targeted for a reason.

“The current judicial electoral system in Ohio is flawed, mainly because we are the only state in the country where judges run in a partisan primary and a nonpartisan general election,” said state Sen. Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, a Senate co-sponsor. “Voters deserve to have the full picture about candidates on the ballot, and this is just another piece of information they will have to make an informed decision.”

State Sen. Jerry C. Cirino, R-Kirtland, added: “Voters deserve maximum transparency in the election process, and this legislation will help Ohioans have a better understanding of which judicial candidates represent their core values. While I encourage voters to do in-depth research into all candidates on the ballot, this bill ensures that basic party affiliation is readily available at the polls.”

State Rep. D.J. Swearingen, R-Huron, co-sponsoring the House bill with Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, said about half of those in a state judicial elections survey cast ballots less frequently for judges compared with other offices “with a high indication that a party affiliation would be helpful for this voting process.”

Stewart said: “Only on the general election ballot does Ohio pretend” there are no Republican and Democratic candidates “by omitting their party affiliation, and it’s denying voters information about the candidates that they continually tell us they want.”

If you get election mail from county or state political parties, supported judicial candidates are often listed.

One good part of this bill would move candidates for those courts higher on the ballot. They’re usually toward the bottom of the ballot, and there is a huge drop-off in the number of votes for those positions compared with other offices.

So why do these Republican bills include only the courts of appeals and the supreme court?

It’s simple, according to Ohio Democratic Party Chairwoman Liz Walters.

She said: “Ohio Republicans are doing what they always do when they don’t win elections — they’re trying to change the rules to help themselves.” After losing three out of the last four Ohio Supreme Court races and losing a majority on the statewide appellate bench, the Ohio GOP now wants to require party ID to appear on the ballot for those particular judicial races.

Walters said Republicans “are not, however, pushing to include party ID on local judicial races. That inconsistency — and the sudden urgency behind this proposal — makes their partisan political motivations clear, no matter what lame explanations (they) may be offering.”

Walters pointed out that former state Rep. John Becker, R-Union Township, in a speech last week during his unsuccessful bid to be Ohio Republican Party chairman “admitted that the Ohio GOP has been outmaneuvered by our successes on the Ohio Supreme Court.”

She added: “Instead of trying to win more voters, the Ohio Republican Party is instead tinkering with the voting process” because the party “has no positive agenda to offer voters.”

Republicans have super majorities in the Ohio House and Senate, so if the party wants to change the system, they’ll take the steps needed to do so.

But it should be consistent from the lowest court to the highest in the state.

Skolnick covers politics for the Tribune Chronicle and The Vindicator.



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