Ohio’s elections officials and the state’s Republican attorney general have implored the Ohio legislature to move the May 3 primary, saying delays in setting new state legislative and congressional lines have jeopardized an orderly, accurate election. But state lawmakers have balked, and for now, planning for the election is going full speed ahead. Why? Because of hardened opposition from General Assembly Republicans, particularly in the Ohio House.
House Republicans have cited a variety of factors, including concerns about the effect a late date change would have on the integrity of individual elections and frustration with what they see as the Ohio Supreme Court setting the election schedule back by waiting until January to reject a state legislative map Republicans approved in September.
Democrats and voting-rights groups meanwhile have accused Republicans of leaving the election in place to pressure the Ohio Supreme Court, which has rejected several Republican redistricting plans as unconstitutional, to approve their maps.
But, Republican lawmakers still may yet relent and change the election date, according to Cincinnati Rep. Bill Seitz, the number-two ranking Republican in the Ohio House.
“We’re going to hold fast to that date until we get a clear and unequivocal sign from the Secretary of State and [county elections officials] that it is an absolute impossibility to run the election on May 3,” Seitz said Friday. “And by the way, my understanding is that we cross the Rubicon if not today, we cross it in the next very few days.”
Ohio’s elections planning has been bogged down by redistricting, the regular process of updating political maps to reflect populations, as it’s being carried out for the first time under a new set of anti-gerrymandering rules approved by voters. The Ohio Supreme Court has rejected three Republican-drawn maps — two state legislative map plans and one congressional map plan. In a showdown with the court, Republicans violated a court order last month by not passing a revised map plan by a court-imposed deadline, leading Republican Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, who’s joined the court’s three Democrats in rejecting the various Republican map plans, to threaten to hold members of the Ohio Redistricting Commission in contempt of court.
The whole saga has set redistricting months behind schedule and delayed elections workers’ ability to perform their technical preparations.
The maps are supposed to be used for the first time during the primary election in May. But the state still doesn’t have legally approved maps. The court is reviewing the most recent Republican-passed maps — a state legislative plan adopted on Feb. 25, and a congressional map approved on Wednesday.
The redistricting issue only affects races for the state legislature and U.S. congressional races, while statewide elections, like those for governor or U.S. Senate, are unaffected.
That’s why Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman last month floated scheduling a second primary election. Elections workers immediately criticized the idea since doing so would cost more than $20 million and could result in voter confusion and a drop-off in turnout for the second set of elections.
But as redistricting has dragged on, elections workers this week shifted to calling for postponing the election, saying some counties can’t meet their necessary deadlines. The state’s largest counties, including Cuyahoga County, are most harmed since they have more voters, more districts and more voting precincts for which they must prepare ballots. Republican Attorney General Dave Yost and Secretary of State Frank LaRose also have called for the legislature to delay the election.
“Given these facts, our ability to administer a fair and accurate election has been compromised,” county elections officials said in a letter to state lawmakers earlier this week.
House Speaker Bob Cupp, a Lima Republican, repeatedly has said he doesn’t think there’s political support within the House Republican caucus to move the election. Lawmakers responded this week by passing $9 million in extra funding, meant to help county election boards hire extra workers and pay for overtime, adding to the costs of the redistricting fiasco.
“There’s the uncertainty of it all. What’s going to happen when?” Cupp said. “The other part of it, the longer you extend it, the more costly campaigns are going to be because they have to spend another month or whatever it’s extended to.”
State Rep. Brian Stewart, a Pickaway County Republican, said changing the election date in the late stages of a campaign benefits better-funded candidates who can afford to budget another month of campaigning.
“It’s like playing an entire baseball game, and the 9th inning ends and then, oh, by the way, you’ve got another inning,” Stewart said. “You would have played that game differently if you knew you were playing 10 innings instead of nine. The election date is what you plan backwards from.”
Moving the election could have significant implications for Ohio’s Republican U.S. Senate primary, a competitive race with several viable candidates that’s one of the most expensive in the country.
The candidates have set their campaign budgets, including scheduling TV ads and hiring staff, with the election date in mind. While all the Republican Senate race’s major candidates are independently wealthy, some candidates who have spent more of their own money than other candidates, like Cleveland businessman Mike Gibbons or Chagrin Falls state Sen. Matt Dolan, might be able to get additional funding more easily.
“I think at the moment everyone is acting like this is going to be on May 3,” said one Republican involved with the Senate race. “But if they end up delaying it, it’s a huge deal for everybody. These campaigns have an arc, and you plot it to peak close to Election Day. But if they pull the rug out 35 days before the election, it changes the calculus for everybody.”
And Stewart said Gov. Mike DeWine’s last-minute postponement of the election in March 2020 weighs on his and his colleagues’ minds. The move created confusion with voters and elections workers, leading Republican lawmakers to pointedly pass a law clarifying that only the legislature can set the date of the election.
“I don’t think there’s very many members of the Republican caucus who agreed with that decision,” Stewart said. “And so to be back sounding those similar kinds of alarms in a second consecutive election, I think is not being terribly well-received.”
Ohio Democrats meanwhile have accused Republicans of using the election to engineer a crisis and put pressure on the court to approve their gerrymandered maps.
To make a political point more than anything, Ohio House Democrats on Thursday moved to amend the elections funding bill to change the election date to June 21. Republicans voted the amendment down in a party-line vote.
“Primaries can be moved by the General Assembly,” Ohio House Minority Leader Allison Russo said recently. “So any crisis, any chaos that is resulting is completely self-inflicted.”
On Friday, Ohio Democrats held a news conference where their secretary of state candidate, Chelsea Clark, criticized LaRose for his part in the redistricting mess. Clark said that by not working with Democrats to pass a map, LaRose had put military voters’ ballots at risk.
The next big deadline is the March 18 that is set in federal law to mail ballots to military members and other overseas voters. LaRose, a Republican, last week asked the federal government to extend the deadline, but was denied on Friday night.
Liz Walters, chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, said the party accepts the trade-off harm to candidates as worth the price of continuing the redistricting fight for voters.
“We work with our candidates every day to navigate this confusion and chaos,” Walters said. “But the most important thing is that Ohioans have fair maps, and that is what we will continue to push forward.”
Seitz, the Republican lawmaker, said Democrats also are negatively affected by the uncertainty about the election. One of Ohio’s more competitive races this year is that between two former mayors, John Cranley of Cincinnati and Nan Whaley of Dayton, who are running for governor in the Democratic primary. He said the longer the race drags on, candidates will have less time to fundraise and reorganize for the November election.
“Without disclosing who, I have been in touch with some of our immediately recognizable Democratic names who are following this saga just as keenly as we are,” Seitz said.
Tony Perlatti, director of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, said elections officials in Cleveland finally got the legal descriptions of the state legislative maps — the highly technical details they need to make sure voters aren’t put in the wrong legislative district — on Thursday.
They’re now proofing ballots, a process that usually takes three weeks, with the March 18 deadline just two weeks away. The likely result will be ballot errors, he said. And there are more steps in the process, like programming voting machines.
And that doesn’t account for congressional maps, the legal descriptions of which still haven’t arrived.
“We will not be able to meet our regular process for March 18,” Perlatti said. “I think we can probably meet the opening of absentee voting on April 5. That we can do.”
Aaron Ockerman, executive director of the Ohio Election Officials Association, which represents the 88 county boards of election across the state, said the issues in Cuyahoga County are among the most severe but are similar to what elections officials are dealing with across the state.
“There’s still this shock factor among my folks that we’re trying to meet all these deadlines,” Ockerman said. “But the vote was taken, and as far as I’m concerned, and as far as my members are concerned, we’re plowing forward to May 3 until someone tells us not to plow forward. That’s all we can do at this point to put forward a fair, honest and accurate election.”
Another external factor could force Republicans to relent and postpone the election.
Huffman, the Republican Ohio Senate president, told reporters this week that some aspect of the election will have to be moved if the Ohio Supreme Court strikes down either or both of the GOP’s latest state legislative and congressional map proposals.
“If for some reason there’s some court action that sets one or both of the maps aside, there may be some consideration [to changing the election date], but I think right now we’re on track,” Huffman said. “It’ll be tight, but the secretary and local elections folks are up to the task.”
Andrew J. Tobias | cleveland.com | 3.06.2022