Ohio House pairs Biden on ballot, foreign nationals ban

COLUMBUS — A temporary fix allowing President Joe Biden to appear on this fall’s ballot cleared the Ohio House during a rare special session Thursday, along with a ban on foreign nationals contributing to state ballot campaigns that representatives said was demanded in exchange by the Ohio Senate.

The Senate was expected to take up both bills on Friday — though fractured relations between the chambers means their successful passage was not guaranteed.

The special session was ostensibly called to address the fact that Ohio’s deadline for making the November ballot falls on Aug. 7, about two weeks before the Democratic president was set to be formally nominated at the party’s Aug. 19-22 convention in Chicago.

But when the Senate — and then Republican Gov. Mike DeWine’s proclamation calling lawmakers back to Columbus — tied the issue to the foreign nationals prohibition, the Democratic National Committee moved to neutralize the need for any vote in Ohio. In tandem with the Biden campaign, it announced earlier this week that it would solve Biden’s problem with Ohio’s ballot deadline itself by holding a virtual roll call vote to nominate him. A committee vote on that work-around is set for Tuesday.

On Thursday, Democrats in the Ohio House accused Republican supermajorities in both chambers of exploiting the Biden conundrum to pass an unrelated bill that undermines direct democracy in Ohio, where voters sided against GOP leaders’ prevailing positions by wide margins on three separate ballot measures last year. That included protecting abortion access in the state Constitution, turning back a proposal to make it harder to pass such constitutional amendments in the future, and legalizing recreational marijuana.

Political committees involved in the former two efforts took money from entities that had received donations over the past decade from Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss, though any direct path from him to the Ohio campaigns is untraceable under campaign finance laws left unaddressed in the House legislation. Wyss lives in Wyoming.

“We should not be exchanging putting the President of the United States on the ballot for a massive power grab by the Senate majority. That is what this vote is about,” state Rep. Dani Isaacsohn, a Cincinnati Democrat, said before both bills cleared a House committee along party lines.

State Rep. Bill Seitz, a Republican attorney from Cincinnati who spearheaded House negotiations on the compromise, said the amended House bill offered Thursday was significantly pared down from a version against which voting rights advocates pushed back Wednesday.

Among other things, it reduced penalties for violations, changed enforcement provisions and added language to assure the prohibition doesn’t conflict with existing constitutional protections political donations have been afforded, such as through the 2020 Citizens United decision.

“What we’re trying to do here, folks — at least, what we all should be trying to do — is ferret out the evil construct of foreign money on our elections. This is not a good thing,” Seitz said during floor debate on the measure, which cleared the chamber 64-31.

However, Seitz voted against a successful floor amendment brought by state Rep. Brian Stewart, a fellow Republican, that broadened the definition of “foreign nationals” in the bill to include lawful permanent residents of the U.S., also known as green card holders. Stewart said the change would close “a glaring loophole” in the bill.

“Without this amendment, folks, the Biden administration can fast-track a green card for their favorite preferred foreign billionaire of the day, from Switzerland or elsewhere, before the ink is even dry on House Bill 1,” Stewart argued. “We are well within our legal rights to do this under federal law.”

Seitz strongly opposed the addition, citing a U.S. Supreme Court opinion that suggested such an extension “would raise substantial questions” of constitutionality.

House Democratic Leader Allison Russo, whose caucus helped force a vote on the amendment, said the addition could provide an opening for litigation. “It certainly puts the law in conflict now with federal law,” she said.

Republican House Speaker Jason Stephens said he has no plans to reconvene the House for further special session business, even if the Senate should remove the Stewart provision on Friday — requiring another House vote to approve the change. He said the House will return to regular business in June, as scheduled.

“We’ll see what happens in June,” he said, noting that’s when the House had originally planned to address the Biden ballot issue anyway.

If the foreign nationals legislation does become law, it has the potential to impact ballot issue campaigns making their way toward Ohio’s Nov. 5 ballot. Those include measures proposing changes to Ohio’s redistricting law changes, raising the minimum wage to $15, granting qualified immunity for police and protecting certain voting rights.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Republican Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost in a ruling Wednesday night to certify language on the qualified immunity measure, which would make it easier for Ohioans to sue police for using excessive force, and to send it directly to the Ohio Ballot Board. Yost has appealed that ruling. One of his decisions on the voting rights measure is also caught up in court.

Legislation containing the ballot fix, which applies only to this year’s election, cleared the chamber 63-31, with some Republicans opposing action that they saw as solely helping Democrats. Lawmakers have temporarily tweaked the deadline twice in the past to help candidates of both parties.