Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Ohio Critics of G.O.P. Start Battle to Change Election Process

The New York Times

Ohio Critics of G.O.P. Start Battle to Change Election Process

Critics of the Republican grip on Ohio politics filed petitions on Tuesday that seek a statewide vote on three constitutional amendments that would overturn the way elections are run and strip elected officials of their power to draw legislative districts.

The move, by the group Reform Ohio Now, is an effort to tap into sentiment across the country to remove political influence from the mechanics of elections. The movement has been sparked in part by partisan lines that are sharply reducing electoral competition in Congress and by efforts by political outsiders like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California to upend the established order.

The Ohio group is backed by so-called good-government organizations like Common Cause, though Republicans insist it is little more than a front for disgruntled Democrats frozen out of power.

If its petitions are successful, a vote on the proposed amendments would be held in November in a campaign that Republicans and Democrats predicted would draw intense interest and millions of dollars from outside the state.

"People are fed up," Scarlett Bouder, a leader of Reform Ohio Now, said in a telephone news conference from Columbus, where the petitions were filed. "They want change."

The most significant of the amendments would effectively strip Republican elected officials of their control over redistricting, the reverse of an effort in California intended primarily for Democratic lawmakers that is backed by Mr. Schwarzenegger, who himself came into office through an recall election.

In both states, redistricting would be handed to an independent panel appointed by Republicans and Democrats, though a vote on the California measure is likely to be delayed until next year because of a legal challenge. A California appeals court, in a 2-to-1 decision, sided on Tuesday with opponents of the redistricting measure, ruling that it should not appear on the November ballot. The proponents are appealing to the State Supreme Court.

While officially nonpartisan, the Ohio group is dominated by Democrats and independents who have complained about the conduct of Republican officials in the state as well as about the handling of the presidential election in Ohio last fall by J. Kenneth Blackwell, the Republican secretary of state who is seeking his party's nomination for governor.

In addition to the redistricting measure, the proposed amendments would remove the secretary of state from oversight of elections, instead giving the power to an appointed election master. And it would lower some campaign contribution limits. Republicans in Ohio control the governor's office, the State Legislature, the attorney general's office, the Supreme Court and the state auditor and secretary of state's offices.

Jason Mauk, political director of the Ohio Republican Party, said the party had not taken a formal position on the amendments, but would undoubtedly work to defeat them.

"Quite frankly, the Democrats have failed to run competitive candidates in this state for two decades now and suddenly they are seeking to manipulate the Constitution because they have been impotent as a political party," Mr. Mauk said in an interview.

A former Republican president of the Ohio Senate, Richard Finan, last week filed a lawsuit in the Ohio Supreme Court pre-emptively challenging the petitions because they did not identify the passages that would be deleted from the Constitution.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Finan said if the suit failed, a new group he had founded, Ohio First, would take up the cause with the expected backing of Republicans in Washington. Mr. Finan predicted that if the redistricting amendment became law, Republicans would lose six seats in the House of Representatives and that "you'll see this idea spread to other states."

"Right now, we have 12 Republican congressmen and 6 Democrats," he said. "If this passes, in 2008 you will see 6 Republicans and 12 Democrats."

Herb Asher, a professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University and a leader of Reform Ohio Now, said it was impossible to predict how the redistricting amendment would change the makeup of the Congressional delegation, only that it would make elections more competitive.

"Competitive districts doesn't necessarily mean the Democratic Party is going to do all that well," Mr. Asher said. "I wish both political parties would be looking at this from the perspective that competition is good."

The group delivered to the secretary of state's office petitions bearing the signatures of 520,789 people, said Carlo LoParo, a spokesman for the office. A vote is required on the proposed amendments if the secretary of state determines 322,899 of the signatures are those of qualified voters, Mr. LoParo said. A deadline of Aug. 25 has been set for the verification process.