How did state central committee elections end up on the Ohio ballot?

CLEVELAND – While some voters around the state will select their preferred candidates for the special Aug. 2 election for state House and Senate, other lower profile elections will be at the bottom of the ballot.

State central committee elections are far from the most glamorous, with many voters likely unaware of whom they are voting for or what a state central committee does. So why are elections for the state Republican and Democratic parties’ central committees on the ballot at taxpayers’ expense?

The short answer is because it is the law. Though primaries to select candidates are inherently party functions, they are run by the secretary of state’s office.

The Ohio Revised Code requires elections for the central committee, which makes up the governing body of the state political parties, to be on the primary ballot. But a deeper look reveals much more about the evolution of the political process in Ohio and across the country.

More than a century ago, during what was known as the Gilded Age, with robber barons and monopolies exerting outsized political influence, primaries were handled entirely by members of political parties. While there was a formal nomination process via conventions, so-called “party bosses” held firm control over selecting the nominees for the general election – and, therefore, control over legislation.

Around the turn of the 19th Century, progressive reformers began advocating for direct legislation and elections to break up the centralized power held by party bosses and moneyed interests.

Frederic C. Howe, an author and former state senator from Cleveland credited with coining the term “big business,” admonished the big city power brokers “who selected members of the House of Representatives and candidates for the courts as they would select clerks in their offices,” according to David M. Gold’s “Democracy in Session: A History of the Ohio General Assembly.”

“Ohio, in short, was not ruled by the people,” Howe wrote during his tenure in the Ohio Senate. “It was ruled by business. Not by all business, but by bankers, steam-railroads, public-utility corporations. Representative government did not represent the people; it represented a small group, whose private property it protected.”

To remedy the ills of the party-boss structure, reformers proposed direct primaries where voters could choose their candidates directly.

Areas around the state had experimented with direct primaries. For example, Butler and Hamilton counties both passed statutes for direct primaries in the 1890s, but those were invalidated by an 1899 ruling by the Cincinnati Superior Court that determined them to be unconstitutional special legislation.

In 1904, state Rep. Hiram S. Bronson, a former member of the Franklin County Board of Elections, first introduced a bill requiring primaries to be conducted on a single day and overseen by boards of elections. The primaries were closed, with only members of political parties able to vote.

Party leaders were, unsurprisingly, upset with the idea of ceding power and pushed back on Bronson’s efforts.

Bronson tried again in 1908 with a bill mandating direct primaries for Congress and other local elected offices. That bill also included local central committee elections, which would, in turn, play a part in nominating candidates for statewide office through the state convention system.

The bill – known as the Bronson Primary Law – passed with little opposition in the statehouse. While not going so far as today’s elections, in which voters directly nominate candidates, newspapers at the time heralded it as a success.

“The death of boss dominated conventions and the popular vote nominations of all county, municipal, village and township officers in Ohio by all political parties now seems certain,” reads an April 17, 1908 article in The Plain Dealer. “It will mark a new era in the politics of the state.”

An April 23, 1908, article in The Columbus Evening Dispatch lauded Bronson for his work.

“It will thus be seen that something worth while is gained in this law. The people will come into a freer exercise of their rightful power and, when the legislature next acts, it will give more. There will never be a return to the old methods of nominating candidates for office. For this commendable advance step, the people of the state are indebted to Representative Hiram S. Bronson, more than to any other one man. He began his work for this reform when the people were almost hopeless and in a measure indifferent. He has persisted in it, against the opposition of all the bosses until it became one of the most popular measures before the legislature and the opposition was forced to surrender a large part of what was demanded.”

This type of direct democracy grew increasingly popular throughout the early part of the 20th Century, both in Ohio and nationally.

On April 8, 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which required the direct election of senators, was ratified, requiring further changes to Ohio law.

Just weeks later, on April 17, the statehouse passed House Bill 669, which created the first true primary election in the state. Gov. James M. Cox signed it into law on May 3, with The Columbus Evening Dispatch describing it as “aimed at bosses.”

“It is believed that this law will be a long step in the directing of divesting the political boss of his power and of making it easier for the people to get men of their own choosing into office,” the Dispatch wrote.

Over the course of the 20th Century, the importance of political parties as a means of nominating candidates waned significantly, though central committee elections have remained on the ballot. Today, central committees generally deal with internal party functions, with minor differences between Republicans and Democrats.

Though they no longer select candidates, the central committee can choose which candidates to endorse. They are also responsible for selecting party chairs and other officers.

Both central committees have two members from each state Senate district: one man and one woman. The length of their terms varies, with Republicans holding two-year terms and Democrats having four-year terms.