Ohio Senate passes bill restricting collection of petition signatures

By MARC KOVAC C-N Capital Bureau Published:

COLUMBUS -- Groups attempting to place law changes and constitutional amendments before voters would be barred from collecting additional signatures while initial petitions are being verified, under legislation OK'd by the Ohio Senate Wednesday.

Proponents say the change is needed to ensure all citizens have the same time in which to quality for the ballot, while opponents are countering that limiting signature gathering will hinder citizens' involvement in state government and elections.

Senate Bill 47 passed on a split vote of 23-10 and heads to the Ohio House for further consideration.

The legislation includes a number of law changes that would affect citizen referendums, outlining how signatures are gathered and how and when the resulting petitions are submitted and validated.

Among other provisions, it would require petition circulators to be at least 18 years old, though they would not have to be Ohio residents. And signatures on candidate petitions would expire a year after their signing date.

But the focus of Wednesday's floor debate was a prohibition on signature-gathering activities.

Groups are required to collect tens of thousands of signatures from eligible Ohio voters to place issues on general election ballots.

Under current law, they're allowed to continue to circulate petitions after submitting initial ones to elections officials for verification, with additional time provided if petitions fall short of ballot requirements.

Under SB 47, groups would have to cease signature gathering after submitting petitions to the secretary of state, with 10 additional days allowed under the state constitution after elections officials complete their initial review.

Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, said the law change would ensure all groups are treated the same and ensure that elections officials don't drag their feet or fast-track signature verification if they oppose or support citizen initiatives.

"Everyone will get the same period of time within which to collect petitions," Seitz said. "Sometimes, this will help your cause, and sometimes it will not. .... It is about having one set of simple, easily understood rules that apply no matter your cause, to prevent gamesmanship by the secretary of state, gamesmanship by the local boards of elections...."

But the provision has prompted concern among voter advocates, including the League of Women Voters of Ohio.

"Ohioans have benefited for over 100 years by the availability of the initiative and referendum process," Peg Rosenfield, an elections specialist for the group, said in a released statement. "A change of this nature should not be rushed through the legislature as if it were a minor procedural correction. We urge the Senate to separate out all the petition provisions for a different bill for full, careful consideration."

Sen. Nina Turner, D-Cleveland, and potential secretary of state candidate in 2014, also opposed the bill.

"This so-called uniformity is nothing more than a smokescreen...," she said. "Access and the ability of the citizens to make their voices heard should not be abridged. We should not put hurdles up. We should not put barriers up."

Sen. Shirley Smith, D-Cleveland, added during the floor debate, "In the name of uniformity, SB 47 restricts the people's voice and their right to directly participate in democracy."

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