Ohio senators consider election law changes to close primaries, prohibit ranked choice voting

By: - September 29, 2023 4:50 am
People enter a voting precinct to vote in the Michigan primary election at Trombly School Aug. 7, 2018 in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

People enter a voting precinct to vote in the Michigan primary election at Trombly School Aug. 7, 2018 in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

This week an Ohio Senate committee took up a handful of election administration bills. Those proposals would close primaries, tweak Ohio’s “Sore Loser” law, and prohibit ranked choice voting.

Closed primaries

In Ohio, party affiliation is loose. You don’t select one when you register to vote. When primary elections come around, you can select whichever party’s ballot you want. As Sen. Michele Reynolds, R-Canal Winchester, describes it, “a voters party affiliation is implied, not declared.”

If, for instance, a voter picked a Democratic ballot in 2022, election officials assume they’re a Democrat. But barring legislative changes, there’s nothing keeping that voter from selecting a Republican ballot in next year’s primary.

Reynolds called that approach “antiquated” and argued it “fails to offer genuine reflection of the voter’s political beliefs.”

She made a series of dubious arguments to sell her plan. The bill introduces “real time voter registration,” she said. Nothing about registration or its processing changes, except for the addition of party affiliation.

Reynolds insisted the bill “offers flexibility,” because voters can change parties at will. But those changes must happen at least 30 days before an election, and while currently voters can’t ‘change’ party between elections, it was never made clear what the harm is with voters being able to select the ballot they want on Election Day.

Instead of making the system more flexible, it makes it more rigid, with a very specific circumstance in mind.

“Many other states have implemented similar party affiliation requirements and closed primary systems, to safeguard election integrity and promote genuine political discourse,” Reynolds explained.

Republicans have grown wary of the current system because it could leave the door open for spoilers. The party worries Democrats will flood their primary to undermine whatever candidate they oppose. Rush Limbaugh proposed the GOP employ the same tactic during the 2008 presidential primary, in fact.

But political scientists are skeptical that voters actually operate that way. Even if some voters jump parties to harm a candidate they don’t like, it’s far more common for voters to back the candidate they like, even if they’re voting for a different party.

Sore losers?

Sen. Nathan Manning, R-North Ridgeville, is proposing a tweak to Ohio’s ‘Sore Loser’ law to give primary candidates greater flexibility in filling vacancies. Under current law, once a person runs in a partisan primary, they can’t switch party or race. If a candidate loses in the primary they can’t then try their luck in the general election as an independent candidate for the same seat or some other office up for election.

But a funny thing happened in Lorain.

Mary Springowski currently serves on Lorain City Council, but she would’ve liked to be mayor. Back in 2019, the city’s then-leader won the primary unopposed. Two days later he announced his resignation.

Six Democrats in all raised their hands for the party’s nomination. But when the county party’s central committee met to make their pick, they knocked five off the list, including Springkowski. The problem? Those “sore losers” won their primary — just for a different office.

According to a legal opinion from the county prosecutor’s office, the sore loser law prevented them from hopping to a different race, even if they won and even if they were filling a vacancy.

Springowski rejected that reading of the statute and encouraged the panel to approve Manning’s bill explicitly allowing candidates to fill vacancies.

“It is clear that (the Sore Loser law) was merely to try to stop someone who had lost their election from running as a candidate with a different party or as an independent writing candidate,” she said. “I don’t believe it was ever meant to disqualify highly qualified, highly eligible candidates from filling a vacancy.”

Ranked choice

The committee also took up a bipartisan proposal from Sens. Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, and Bill DeMora, D-Columbus to effectively prohibit ranked choice voting. A handful of U.S. states and municipalities currently use the system, whereby voters select multiple candidates, and their votes get redistributed through successive rounds eliminating the lowest performing candidate.

Supporters argue ranked choice opens the door to outsider candidates. With more candidates, it’s less likely elections boil down to choosing between two bad options. And because voters know their ballot will move to their second choice if their first is eliminated, they have greater freedom to back their favored candidate without feeling like they’re ‘wasting’ their vote.

But to Gavarone, it’s a nightmare, and one Ohio shouldn’t repeat.

“While ranked choice voting is not currently used in Ohio,” she explained, “it was employed by several cities including Cincinnati, Cleveland and Toledo in the 1900s before its citizens, fed up with the process, demanded the experiment to end by repealing it all at the ballot box.”

DeMora first raised concerns about election administration.

“Ranked choice voting is a threat to our elections that would be too expensive, too complex for overworked and underpaid election workers and will take far too long to get results,” he said.

DeMora also offered a hypothetical four-way race that broke down 45%, 30%, 15% and 10%. He argued every member of the committee would agree the candidate with 45% won. “I mean, they won by 15 points,” he said. But he argued that candidate might wind up losing if enough voters left them off their ballots entirely. Alternatively, they might wind up winning, but after a long and costly process that only confirms what the first round of voting determined.

Although the measure technically doesn’t prohibit ranked choice, it presents a massive stick to discourage local governments from trying it.

“If any such municipality or charter county chooses to implement ranked choice voting,” Gavarone explained, “the bill would deem that municipality or charter county ineligible to receive local government fund distributions.”

Follow OCJ Reporter Nick Evans on Twitter.



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Nick Evans
Nick Evans

Nick Evans has spent the past seven years reporting for NPR member stations in Florida and Ohio. He got his start in Tallahassee, covering issues like redistricting, same sex marriage and medical marijuana. Since arriving in Columbus in 2018, he has covered everything from city council to football. His work on Ohio politics and local policing have been featured numerous times on NPR.