Administrative review needed in ballot issues

Environmental activists from seven Ohio community groups are suing several local and state governmental entities, including the Mahoning County Board of Elections, claiming constitutional rights violations because some ballot issues were blocked from appearing on election ballots.

The civil suit filed this month in U.S. District Court in Youngstown claims plaintiffs followed all the rules in collecting signatures to place initiatives on ballots between 2015 and 2018, but the issues still faced “unconstitutional review by election officials and arbitrary and inconsistent results by both election officials and the Ohio courts.”

The suit claims the state’s process violates the separation of powers by requiring administrative review of ballot measures, giving the unelected boards of elections members too much authority to keep an initiative off the ballot.

Plaintiffs and supporters of the action claim administrative review creates an additional obstacle in their right to “direct democracy.”

The fact is, however, oversight always is necessary by the boards of elections. These bodies are appointed to make decisions about ballot issues based on law, not on their political opinions. And let’s not forget that boards of elections are intentionally bipartisan.

Further, these plaintiffs seem to forget that their issues have appeared on election ballots — eight times, in fact, in Youngstown — and each time Youngstown voters said “no.”

Besides Youngstown, community members from Toledo and Columbus, as well as Portage, Medina, Athens and Meigs counties, are plaintiffs in the suit.

In one instance, the Mahoning County Board of Elections refused to certify an antifracking charter amendment based on language in recently passed legislation, House Bill 463. The board’s refusal was challenged, and the Ohio Supreme Court sided with the group. Indeed the issue was placed on the ballot. (And again it failed.)

Despite the charter amendment’s repeated defeat, supporters say they won’t stop their ballot attempts until it passes.

Now, for a group that is so adamant in “direct democracy” and in their insistence the public have a voice in deciding issues, isn’t it ironic that they simply ignore the voices of the people who have repeatedly said “no” to this anti-fracking issue? Isn’t it contradictory for them to insist that they will not stop until they get their way?

As we see it, it’s this very attitude that instead gives strong arguments in support of our representative form of government that enables us to elect legislators who stand for us in Columbus and Washington by writing, publicly debating and then openly voting on laws.

In their complaint, plaintiffs maintain the entire Ohio ballot initiative process is a violation of the separation of powers doctrine.

We say, however, the process already is working.

An attempt to place an anti-fracking ballot issue on a Columbus ballot last November was denied when the Franklin County Board of Elections said the issue’s contents exceeded the city’s authority, and that elections officials were required to invalidate the initiative petitions under a state law change enacted in early 2017. They were referring to House Bill 463.

In that case, the Ohio Supreme Court later upheld the ruling in a 6-1 decision. “Columbus clearly lacks the power to enact the proposed ordinance, we hold that the board members did not abuse their discretion in keeping relators’ proposal off the ballot,” the state’s highest court ruled.

In each Youngstown instance, the Mahoning County Board of Elections carefully reviewed and considered the issues and then acted based on existing law. When the Mahoning County Board of Election’s refusal was challenged, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled against the board of elections and the issues, indeed, went to the voters.

That’s democracy.

And when the voters said no — each of eight times — that, too, is democracy.

Attempts to remove administrative review of potential ballot measures from the process are unreasonable.