COLUMBUS — Based on early vows, rumors and predictions, Ohio’s 2014 ballot was going to be rife with every hot voter topic of the day: gay marriage, right to work, medical marijuana, clean energy and voter rights.
As of Wednesday’s signature deadline, not one issue survived — though many activists have vowed to try again for 2015.
Advocates for several of the issues say it’s more difficult and expensive to pursue the direct democracy route in Ohio these days, despite a constitutional guarantee that allows citizens to be able to challenge laws they don’t like. Other issues blazed, then fizzled before making much headway through the qualification process.
But some observers say even a failed ballot campaign has its value. Blanketing street corners and festivals for months or years in this critical battleground state keeps the issue indirectly before voters and sometimes slows down or speeds up the legislative process.
“It does have value for rallying the troops. You do want to get folks excited about an issue and a ballot effort serves to do that,” said Carrie Davis, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio. “Those have value just in terms of generating public discussion and public interest, and of course we’ve seen the poll numbers shift in Ohio on some of these issues as people are talking about it.”
Take gay marriage. A Quinnipiac University poll released in December 2012 found 45 percent of Ohio voters supported same-sex marriage, compared to 47 percent who opposed it. By May 2014, as competing campaigns to place a gay marriage amendment on Ohio’s ballot churned away, that same poll showed support for same-sex marriage had grown to 50 percent of voters, compared to 43 percent who opposed it.
In February, a Quinnipiac poll also showed more than half of Ohio voters supported legalized marijuana — but that didn’t make the Ohio Rights Group’s success assured.
“They’ve made it intentionally harder. The seats of power don’t like giving that (policy-making power) up,” said John Pardee, the legalization group’s president. “Our forefathers here in Ohio wanted us to have a constitutional right to change laws we don’t like. They couldn’t undo that, but what they could do is keep adding more and more hurdles.”
A law that went into effect last year required petition circulators to be at least 18; added a list of administration requirements for marking, sorting and submitting petitions; and barred issue campaigns from resubmitting petitions a second time after they’ve been invalidated even if some signatures were valid. The law also requires issue campaigns to wait for their initial round of signatures to be validated before gathering more signatures.
Senate President Keith Faber said he doesn’t believe those changes led to 2014’s issue-free ballot. He said the severe winter and the complexity of the changes that were sought were more likely the culprit.
“Any time you’re asking voters to make significant and substantive changes to the constitution, they want to understand what’s being proposed,” Faber said. “A lot of these issues, whether it’s marriage or voting rights, can be very emotional topics, so naturally Ohioans will be careful about signing a petition before they understand what you’re asking them to put on the ballot. When you’re trying to do that in a compressed amount of time, it becomes difficult.”