Buckeyes Battle over Bonds and Ballots

OhioNews Bureau

ONB COLUMBUS: In the week since Ohio Governor Ted Strickland gave his dazzling but dubious State of the State speech last Wednesday about his plans to create new jobs and commandeer control of the state’s education system, supporters and critics of the proposed $1.7 bond package have been busy working to give it liftoff or shoot it down before takeoff.

In the same week, issues affecting what might or might not happen on March 4th, Ohio’s primary election day, continue to swirl and were made tangible by the filing of a lawsuit by Union County against Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, contending she does not have the authority to require a county board of elections to use paper ballots in elections when such requirement violates the Help America Vote Act.

CRITICS QUESTION STRICKLAND JOBS PROGRAM

News reports indicate that while Strickland was outlining his multi-faceted plan to create 80,000 new jobs in the coming StricklandStricklandyears, a plan which left many Republican lawmakers under whelmed, his busy bee supporters were already creating official vehicles to carry his Building Ohio Jobs program forward through the Ohio General Assembly or if need be with Ohio voters, who Strickland wants have their say on it this November.

The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer (CPD) reported Tuesday that Strickland supporters have set up a 527-group to raise funds “to influence” ballot issues, such as the one he proposed last week. The 527, so named because of the section of the IRS code that creates them, also has as one of its purposes the ability to help or hurt the election or appointment of “any individual to any federal, state or local public office.”

But that’s not the purpose of the group, said a respected Columbus lawyer who had been tasked by Strickland to set up the group. Don McTigue, an elections lawyer who is a favorite of Democrats and other progressive groups, said he filed the necessary papers because “the governor is interested in getting this going.”

McTigue said this group was one of three groups he has set up. The other two were a ballot-issue political action committee that would be a vehicle to educate Ohio voters to vote for it and a nonprofit corporation that would work on issues of jobs and education “beyond the bond issue,” according to the CPD.

But Republican legislative leaders like Ohio Senate President Bill Harris and House Speaker Jon Husted are wary of whether the state should be issuing debt during these dubious days, and whether the issue, which could make it to the November ballot this year, would serve to draw Democratic voters to the polls much as the constitutional amendment initiated by social conservatives to ban gay marriage did to draw sufficient numbers of Republicans to the polls in 2004 push Ohio into President Bush’s win column, thereby re-enlisting him for a second four-year term in the White House.

HustedHustedHusted, the term-limited House Speaker from Dayton who hopes to keep his political career going by moving to the Ohio Senate and who is brandishing his anti-debt credentials, is a tad more than miffed at Strickland’s bond proposal. Speaking to The Columbus Dispatch, the handsome former football star and chamber of commerce executive said “This is a departure from what we were told nine months ago,” when he said administration management officials told him the “bond issues were off limits” because Ohio was “nearing the maximum for such outlays.”

Harris, a 23-year Marine veteran who runs his dominant Republican Senate caucus with the skill and savvy of a drill sergeant at Paris Island, said he and others will continue to question whether the state of the state is as sour as Strickland has painted it. Harris, an astute businessman who owns a large car dealership with his sons, wants more financial information from state budget leaders before buying into the need for Strickland's jobs bond package.

Voices from the Ohio GOP said Strickland “fell dramatically short of bold leadership” and then lambasted the first-term governor whose approval ratings during tough times have remained quite high for the poor ranking of Ohio is various categories related to growth and jobs.

"This is an administration that has presided over the loss of 12,000 jobs in the last year, and now they're predicting a nearly two-billion dollar budget deficit. It will take more than additional bond debt and a takeover of the education department to fix that. We've heard this speech before. [Kevin DeWine, State Rep. & Deputy Chairman of the Ohio GOP]

DeWineDeWineDeWine enumerated counter arguments to the strengths Strickland listed in his SOTS address. He said Ohio ranks in the top five states for large-scale layoffs, 3rd in home foreclosures last year, with filings up 88 percent, has unemployment insurance claims that were the 4th highest in the nation in 2007, ranked 3rd in the nation in the most recent job loss reports and lost 12,000 nonfarm jobs since Strickland was elected in 2006.

"Ohioans are looking for bold leadership from the governor, and this speech was pedestrian at best. It was a missed opportunity. I hate to say it, but the state of our state is worse than it was when Gov. Strickland took office, and this speech failed to get to the heart of that problem." [DeWine, GOP Website]

Without admitting it, DeWine, by decrying that Ohio is worse off now after a year in office by Strickland, lays a great share of the blame for the condition of the state at the feet of his own party, who controlled all statewide offices and the General Assembly for the past 16 years. While the statistics DeWine attributes to Strickland are ominous, they are little changed from the condition Strickland inherited from Republicans, who did their best to reduce revenue to Columbus by lowering taxes across the board for individuals and revamping Ohio’s business tax system, which was proclaimed at the time as a great boon to business but which has yet to produce a scintilla of the jobs it was designed to produce.

BRUNNER BATTLES LAWSUITS OVER BALLOTS

BrunnerBrunnerWith a few weeks remaining before hordes of Ohioans turn out for the March 4th primary, which looms large because no clear leader has emerged in the contest between Democratic Sens. Clinton and Obama over who will take on their Republican challenger in November, Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner is having her authority to tell counties what voting systems they should deploy challenged in court.

Last week, Union County, a largely rural central Ohio county, became the first Ohio county to challenge her in court of whether she of they have the authority to decide which system of voting they use and whether offering paper ballots in addition to touch-screen voting machines constitutes two separate systems of voting.
Union County’s lawsuit said that requiring paper ballots would cost it a minimum of $68,000 for materials and require additional poll workers, who are in short supply to many counties.

Filed in Union County, a Republican county judge issued a restraining order to prohibit Brunner from enforcing her January directive that all Ohio counties supply voters who ask for one with a paper ballot.

Brunner successfully had the lawsuit transferred to Franklin County, home of Columbus, where her agency is located. Brunner received good news from a Franklin County judge Tuesday when he lifted the restraining order issued by the Union County judge.

Franklin County Democratic judge Eric Brown said the restraining order was void because Judge Richard Parrott in Union County didn’t give Brunner’s staff “a chance to argue against it.”

But while Brown removed one barrier from her door, he kept it partially closed, asking both parties to appear before him Wednesday, when he may resolve the matter with a ruling that could affect 57 other Ohio counties who use touch-screen voting machines.

Meanwhile, in Cuyahoga County, where election day train wrecks have happened before and some say might happen again this primary, new election officials, anticipating a larger than normal voter turnout and wanting to less the severity of headaches that could come from it, are urging the use of absentee ballots.

Brunner will certainly be in the spotlight and maybe on the hot seat come March 4th, when Ohio’s most populous county serves as a test-case guinea pig for switching from all-touch-screen voting to all-paper-ballot optical scan machines, and the tabulation and counting of them at central-vote centers, like a board of elections or other large venue where high-speed optical scanners will be located.

As she did in Franklin County today, Brunner won a temporary reprieve from more court room hassles recently in the run up to primary election day when a federal district judge said a lawsuit filed by the Ohio ACLU to stop Brunner’s big election reform change came to late in the process.

SENATE REPUBLICAN RIDES TO HER RESCUE

Having inflamed boards of elections across the state, especially in Cuyahoga County, with her decision to force them all to switch to optically scanned paper ballots come November, Brunner will take help from wherever she can get it.

The help coming her way now is from Cincinnati RepublicanCatesCates Sen. Gary Cates of West Chester. Cates is sponsoring a short-lived bill, SB 286, that will provide for provide for midday pick up of ballots so ballots can be scanned before polls close on March 4th.

Drafted to lighten the load for local election officials to count ballots upwards of 400,000 after the polls close, as current law says must be done, the bill, which will sunset after the primary election, would clear the way to produce faster election results because ballots could be scanned – but not counted – at a central-vote location before the polls close, according to this report.

Again, while it sounds good on paper, election watchers are feeling queasy. Critics, including The League of Women Voters and others, say it will lead to the cessation of voting at critical hours during the day so election workers can reconcile ballots for pick up.

Election workers would have to count ballots and match the total with the number of voters' signatures in poll books. Any discrepancy - caused by voters casting provisional ballots, for example - would have to be explained in a written report.

The ballots then would be put in a sealed container and delivered to the warehouse by two people of opposite political parties. [CPD]

Jane Platten, executive director of the Cuyahoga County PlattenPlattenBoard of Elections, expressed in her statements to the CPD that she’s still unsure what will happen. Platten said she is “unsure if the voting location would be shut down during this time” and said “we’re going to try to minimize vote interruption.”

As someone who has received high marks from both Brunner and her new four-member bipartisan board, Platten’s comment to the CPD that she may take Brunner’s advice with a grain of salt, said she “doesn’t feel obligated to give the concept (pushed by Brunner) special consideration because Brunner designated it for Cuyahoga County.”

Showing a surprising streak of independence from Brunner, who others have criticized for being a heavy-handed dictator on election matters, Platten said, “I'm not going to make any decisions not in the best interest of the voters.”

According to SB 286, which is now in the Ohio House, Brunner will by directive spell out requirements for the logistics of any midday pickup the board of elections approves.

The bill also addresses the concern that an optical scan ballot, which contains more than the permissible number of marks for a particular office, issue or question, not be invalidated because of a voter over- or under-voting.

BRUNNER CHIDED FOR PERMITTING POOR, INACCURATE BOE WEBSITE INFO

In separate news related to Ohio voting, especially the accuracy of information offered to the public by Ohio’s 88 boards of elections, a citizen-driven survey of all them titled “Still Not Ready For An Election” found that many of them – 27 or nearly 31 percent – still do not have Website and others had inaccurate, misleading or out of date information.

Performed by a volunteer for the Ohio Election Justice Campaign (OEJC), a group focusing on election irregularities in 2004 and whose claims that problems brewing now are as troublesome have been generally ignored by both Ohio’s mainstream media and Brunner, the survey demonstrates the problems of communication, especially in an Internet world, between them, their voter constituents and Brunner’s office, who has spoken often about election reform but who seems derelict in helping the boards of elections they have control over of providing the quality of information services Ohio voters pay for and should receive.

”There are some troubling issues that need immediate attention for the Ohio Board of Election Websites. It is our hope that this article and research will be taken seriously by Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner and her staff, and that changes will happen immediately to remedy the noted problems. We also hope that the Liaisons entrusted to watch over the County Boards of Elections, will add checking the websites to their duties while doing routine oversight and maintenance for the Boards of Elections. [Paddy Shaffer, OEJC]

The survey says one board of elections, Lawrence County, still offers election forms with Ken Blackwell’s name on it. Blackwell served two terms as Ohio SOS, and was roundly bashed by Brunner for his dual role as co-chair of the Bush/Cheney campaign and chief elections officer in the 2004 presidential election.

John Michael Spinelli is a former Ohio Statehouse government and political reporter and business columnist. He now serves as the OhioNews Bureau Chief for ePluribus Media Journal. Find ONB archives here.

If readers have a news tip or story idea about Ohio politics or government, contact the OhioNews Bureau at: ohionews@epluribusmedia.org

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