Civic society suffers when one party bypasses the public

Photo by Hill Street Studios/Getty Images.

What would you think about a candidate for public office who thought so little of the democratic process that he or she refused to respond to a nonpartisan voter survey, or ignored invitations to participate in a public candidate forum, with both programs hosted by a respected good-government group?

This election cycle in Ohio, many more Democrats than Republicans running for legislative office have agreed to fill out the candidate questionnaires distributed by the League of Women Voters of Ohio. For the League’s online VOTE411.org candidate survey program, more than 80% of Democratic legislative candidates participated, compared to just 26% of GOP candidates.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the same thing is happening with LWV Ohio-sponsored candidate forums, though the amount of non-participation cannot be determined without contacting every LWV chapter in Ohio. And there’s a lot of them. Some chapters, however, confirmed that they canceled election forums after GOP candidates failed to respond to invitations to participate. Finally, a number of forums were not held this year due to the pandemic and/or a lack of volunteers.

In Athens County, three LWV candidate forums were canceled due to lack of candidate participation, according to the local chapter’s president.

“This year, we invited candidates from six races to participate in candidate forums,” recalled Adriane Mohlenkamp. “Two of the forums happened, and four did not. Of the four that did not happen, three were because we never received a response from one of the candidates. We attempted to contact candidates multiple times by email, phone calls and/or Facebook messages, and also mailed letters when we did not receive a response.” The three non-responsive candidates were Republican incumbents for state Senate, U.S. Congress and 4th District Court of Appeals (Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly listed the state House race instead of the court of appeals).

For many longtime consumers of local news, the League of Women Voters’ voter education programs have provided an essential tool to gauge competing candidates’ positions side by side before every primary and general election. The only spin has been provided by the candidates themselves in their submitted responses (the LWV has a strict rule against editing responses) or their comments during candidate forums.

In recent years, these essential good-government programs by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters have become ever more essential to voters who are exhausted and alienated by the incessant and aggressive spins of the candidates, their campaigns and their parties.

Similarly, having an unvarnished side-by-side look at candidates’ positions can be an effective way to counter the fragmentation of news and social media, where Americans increasingly are only consuming news reports that confirm their biases. Exacerbating the situation has been the well-documented struggles of local newspapers, whose shedding of news staff and readership has accelerated during the pandemic.

Alas, voter guides and candidate forums only work when candidates of both parties participate. In Ohio, many more Republican candidates than Democrats have opted out of both programs. Whether that’s the case outside of Ohio is beyond the scope of this analysis.

Low GOP response rate in Ohio

A ballot drop box is seen outside the Athens County Board of Elections. Photo by Tyler Buchanan.

The Athens County chapter of the League of Women Voters published its voter guide for the 2020 election on Sept. 26. As one flips through the pages, the non-participation of non-local Republican candidates, including President Trump, U.S. Reps. Steve Stivers and Bill Johnson, Ohio state Rep. Jay Edwards and state Sen. Frank Hoagland, among others, is glaringly evident. Expanses of blank newsprint appear where those candidates declined to answer questions or provide profile information, next to blocks of text submitted by their Democratic opponents.

Asked about the lack of GOP response in the Athens County LWV voter guide, Pete Couladis, longtime chair of the Athens County Republican Party, said he has “no idea” why this happened. But he said he’s not aware of his party having any particular problems with the League of Women Voters.

Barbara Hunsicker, voter service representative for the League of Women Voters of the Akron Area, said in an email interview that of the races managed by her chapter, 12 Democrats, three Republicans and one Libertarian responded to invitations to fill out a survey for the chapter’s voter guide. “One Democrat and 10 Republicans did not,” she said.

An analysis of Ohio legislative candidates — both U.S. Congress and the state Senate and House — confirms a similar stark difference in participation between Ohio’s Republicans and Democrats in the LWV’s Ohio/VOTE411.org voter guide program.

In Ohio’s 16-member U.S. congressional delegation, among the 16 Democratic candidates, only one declined to provide a profile and answers to questions for the LWVOhio/VOTE411 voter guide as of a review conducted in mid-October. Among the 16 Republican candidates, 10 did not provide that information.

In the 33-seat state Senate, in the same review, 12 of 15 Democratic candidates running for election in this cycle (Senate seats come up for election every four years) provided information for the LWV/VOTE411 voter guide. Five of 15 Republican candidates provided profiles and answers to survey questions. (In the 16th Senate race up for election this cycle, the 26th District, both major party candidates provided answers to one or more local voter guides but not to the VOTE411 site.)

In the Ohio House, similarly, VOTE411 was missing participation information for about 10 races in the 99-seat chamber. Plus, nearly 20 of these races featured uncontested candidates, most of them Republican incumbents.

However, for the rest of the races, the Democrats came out far ahead in terms of participation in the LWV/VOTE411.org voter guide program. In the Ohio House, of 66 Democratic candidates in races for which Vote411 showed the information, 53 participated in the voter guides.

Among Republican candidates in the Ohio House, 19 of 84 supplied the profile info and supplied answers. The difference in total candidate numbers for each party reflects the fact that more GOP candidates had uncontested races than Democrats. These numbers also don’t show third party candidate participation, though nearly all of those candidates participated in the voter guide program. Underdogs in any race have more to gain by participating in voter outreach than established incumbents and other strongly situated candidates.

Percentage-wise, the Democrats crushed their Republican opponents in participation in the online voter guide program:

  • U.S. Congress: 93.75% of Democratic candidates responded to the LWV/VOTE411.org survey, compared to only 37.5% of Republicans.
  • Ohio Senate: 80% of Democrats compared to 33.3% of Republicans.
  • Ohio House: 80.3% of Democrats compared to 22.6% of Republicans.
  • Total positive response rate for all three chambers was 82.6% for Democrats and 25.8% for Republicans.

In the presidential race, incumbent Donald Trump declined to participate in the voter guide program, while former Vice-President Joe Biden did respond with answers to survey questions.

It’s important to note that the above numbers and percentages do not reflect overall Republican and Democrat participation in LWV voter guides across Ohio. Some number of local LWV chapters do not contribute the small amount of money charged to participate in the online VOTE411 program, but do publish/post a local voter guide on their own. These local guides include some candidates who do not appear on the VOTE411 website, or whose names appear on 411 but without supplying answers to questions. In legislative districts that include multiple LWV chapters, some candidates may only submit answers to one of them.

However, it’s highly unlikely that Republican candidates across Ohio did much to bridge the significant gap in participation reflected at the VOTE411.org website, by just supplying answers to local LWV voter guides that aren’t posted to VOTE411.

Why aren’t Republicans participating?

U.S. Rep. Bill Johnso, (R-OH)
Photo of Ohio U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta, by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

David Pepper, chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, suggested that the relatively low participation of incumbent Republican candidates in voter education programs such as those sponsored by the League of Women Voters is a direct result of their not needing to answer to voters.

“Republican members of Congress, including (Sen.) Rob Portman, have refused to hold public town halls, to the point that local groups have sprung up and held ’empty chair’ town halls just to highlight their representatives’ inaccessibility,” Pepper said in a prepared statement Oct.16. “This is what unfair districts have created — GOP lawmakers who sit comfortably in their gerrymandered seats, contemptuous of anyone who dares to try to hold them accountable. Unfortunately, this is just more of the same disdainful behavior they’ve shown in recent years.”

Asked about the relative participation of major party candidates in voter education programs, Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, said her organization has “good relations with both parties in Ohio, especially at the local level.”

Miller did acknowledge, however, that incumbency in a state where gerrymandering has created so many secure legislative seats, both at the state and federal level, means that safe incumbents often don’t feel the need to participate in voter guides or candidate forums.

“You don’t really feel like you have to respond to the voters… That’s unfortunate,” she said.

What Miller didn’t explicitly say is that in Ohio, the advantage of incumbency is heavily weighted toward Republicans, with the GOP enjoying a 61-38 advantage in the Ohio House, a 24-9 advantage in the Ohio Senate, and a 12-4 advantage in the U.S. House. It’s widely agreed that this lopsided legislative advantage in a state whose population is more evenly split between the two major parties (45-41% GOP to Democrat as of 2018) is a direct result of gerrymandering, where the majority party in a state draws legislative boundaries to maximize its electoral strength.

While gerrymandering does create some amount of safe legislative seats for the disadvantaged party, Democratic incumbents in Ohio had a significantly higher response rate on the voter guides than Republican incumbents. For example, in Ohio’s congressional delegation, all four Democratic incumbents answered questions for the LWV/VOTE411 online voter guide. Only five of 12 Republican incumbents participated. The same sort of lopsided response rates among the two parties’ incumbents occurred in the state House and Senates.

Janet Carson, president of the Ohio Democratic County Chairs Association, contends that the Republican lack of engagement on LWV voter education programs is a “coordinated response.”

“In red counties, Republicans don’t need to respond and many times hurt themselves by responding,” she said in an email interview on Oct. 17. “They don’t answer hard issue questions or attend candidates’ nights.”

She acknowledged that she’s not certain how widespread this problem is across Ohio, “but I know of several counties besides Geauga (where Carson is based) where this is the norm.”

Attempts to contact a spokesperson for the Ohio Republican Party to discuss low participation in LWV voter education programs went unanswered.

Nothing new

Rep. Larry Householder, R-Glenford.

The Republican reflex to disregard local voter education efforts — or outreach by the local news media for that matter — isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon in Ohio.

As a state representative 20 years ago this month, now disgraced former House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Perry County, refused to debate his Democratic opponent, a respected Athens lawyer. He said that meet-the-candidate events in other parts of the district would serve the purpose of debates.

In a column published a week before the election in the paper I edited at the time, The Athens NEWS, I reported that Householder ultimately failed to attend ANY of seven “meet the candidates” events that the representative previously had cited as being the same as debates. Householder claimed his opponent was not “a legitimate candidate,” and he would not appear at candidate forums or debates with her. At the time, I empathized with Householder’s opponent; months earlier the future House speaker had stopped talking to The Athens NEWS, maintaining that we were not a legitimate newspaper.

Similarly, state Sen. Frank Hoagland, R-Mingo Junction, when he first ran for office in 2016 refused to talk to a reporter with The Athens NEWS for a routine story. His representative explained that Hoagland did not believe he would reach his “target demographic” by speaking to the newspaper. The sector of citizens Hoagland was not interested in reaching, the rep suggested, was “Democrats.”

Not surprisingly, neither Sen. Hoagland nor Rep. Householder provided responses to the LWV or Ohio’s VOTE411.org voter guides this election cycle.

Bad example from the top

This hyper-partisanship, where incumbents or majority candidates in “safe” districts feel comfortable in ignoring and even insulting the wider voting public, is nowhere more glaring than in the current presidential election. President Trump has been practicing angry and divisive grievance politics to his faithful 40-45% base, to the exclusion of everyone else. What Trump is likely to learn on Nov. 3 — and probably already suspects today — is that he doesn’t represent a “safe” district. He’s the leader of a dynamic multi-ethnic nation with a wide range of political and cultural outlooks.

It would be nice — but I’m not holding my breath — if down-ballot Republicans in Ohio and across the country would learn this lesson in democracy and civic responsibility. Perhaps after Nov. 3?

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