Pandemic hinders citizen-driven ballot initiatives

By Jim Provance - The Blade, Toledo, Ohio (TNS)

COLUMBUS — The mad ballot rush last year to get voters to etch a higher minimum wage, an early voting calendar, and stricter state legislative term limits into the Ohio Constitution ran head-long into a coronavirus wall.

So did an effort to force a bill mandating background checks for nearly all gun sales into the laps of a reluctant Republican-controlled General Assembly.

The question now is whether the atmosphere has changed enough for citizen-driven democracy to venture back out into the streets in search of registered voters who are still being told to limit their outside contacts. It can be tough to get a signature on paper from a distance of six feet.

“We’re looking for something to happen by early to mid-spring,” said Dennis Willard, spokesman for Ohioans for Gun Safety. “That’s when we’ll realize if people are out. We’re always looking for places where people naturally gather in large numbers — festivals, fairs like Comfest here in Columbus. Without having those large groups that come together, that really hinders us.”

The group has been pursuing a citizen-initiated statute that would require a federally licensed firearms dealer to be involved in all gun purchases that do not involve relatives, antiques, or hunting firearms. That would trigger mandatory background checks for private and gun show sales that now often fall through the cracks.

“People are really fired up and want to do something about gun violence,” Mr. Willard said. “This is the safest and simplest approach. Everyone who buys a gun gets a background check.”

Despite some action in the courts last year, such petitions still require in-person signatures. They cannot be collected electronically.

For an initiated statute, which would give lawmakers first crack at passing the law before turning to voters, Gun Safety must initially gather at least 132,887 signatures before late December to put the question in lawmakers’ laps at the start of next year.

It would have to gather a like number of signatures to go to the 2022 ballot if lawmakers don’t act to its satisfaction within four months.

For proposed constitutional amendments — such as the minimum wage, voting, and term limits proposals — the threshold would be 442,958 by June 30 if the Nov. 2, 2021 election is the target. The signature thresholds are tied to voter turnout in the last gubernatorial election in 2018.

J. Bennett Guess, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said no timeline has been set for resuming the election reform effort.

“Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over,” he said. “Despite our successful efforts to obtain signatures electronically in 2020, the state appealed that (court) decision. We can expect the same opposition from Ohio officials in 2021.

“We now face the imminent voting rights fight before us, which is redistricting,” he said. “We will devote our time in this arena to prevent unchecked political gerrymandering as this process unfolds.”

The proposal would have ended Ohio’s 30-day pre-election voter registration deadline, allowing same day registration and voting. It also would have permanently etched into the constitution a month of early absentee and in-person voting.

The coalition will continue to operate under the name Ohioans for Fair and Secure Elections, but the political action committee created for the campaign that never happened has since been terminated.

It will be back to the drawing board for Raise the Wage Ohio. Its union-backed proposed amendment to raise the minimum wage to $13 an hour by 2025 and then tie future increases to the rate of inflation was time specific. It will have to be redrafted and resubmitted to the attorney general for language approval.

James Hayes, the group’s spokesman and deputy director of the progressive organizing non-profit Ohio Voice, said there is still interest in forging ahead. The question is whether to target the 2021 ballot or focus on 2022.

“We would have won if we had completed the campaign, especially in this climate,” he said.

If passed last year, it would have immediately raised the minimum wage to $9.60 as of Jan. 1, 2021. It would have then climbed each year in equal installments until it reached $13 by Jan. 1, 2025. The current wage is $8.80 for non-tipped workers.

The future of the effort to push stricter term limits may have already been decided.

The Ohioans for Legislative Term Limits political action committee has been closed. The proposal would have implemented a 16-year lifetime cap on service in the General Assembly.

By Jim Provance

The Blade, Toledo, Ohio (TNS)

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