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Ohio Democrats take policy gripes to court, polls

Julie Carr Smyth

Swept from power in a critical swing state last year, Ohio Democrats and their allies are simultaneously pursuing challenges of four big bills passed by Republicans since January _ a collective bargaining overhaul, elections law revisions, privatization of the state's job creation functions and new once-per-decade congressional maps.

Ohio Democratic Chairman Chris Redfern said this week that challenges at the ballot box and in the courts are necessary to keep the GOP in check in a state closely divided along party lines. He contends Democrats are fighting for a majority of Ohioans.

Republicans, led by Gov. John Kasich, have criticized Democrats and their allies for all the challenges. This summer, Kasich effectively called litigious Democrats and their allies who are repeatedly suing his administration on policy matters sore losers who are holding back Ohio's progress. His party took control of every statewide office and both chambers of the Legislature last fall.

Grant Neeley, an associate professor of political science at the University of Dayton, said Democrats are "venue shopping" after being disenfranchised at the Statehouse _ a legitimate, if expensive, way to push their agenda.

"You're thwarted in one area _ we normally think about everything being played out in the Legislature _ but if you're not successful there, there are a couple different routes you can go," he said. "It might be setting a new way forward as we have the increasing use of putting things on for referendum. It doesn't take that much in this era of networked organizations to get the signatures."

First priority for Democrats, Redfern says, is overturning Senate Bill 5, a union-limiting law signed by Kasich in March that restricts the bargaining abilities of 350,000 public workers around the state, including police and firefighters, teachers, and state and local government workers. Union limits are the year's wedge issue in several states with Republican governors around the country, including Wisconsin and New Jersey. Ohio's bill appears on the Nov. 8 ballot as Issue 2, with a yes vote upholding the law and a no vote overturning it.

The law is on hold as the ballot battle plays out.

This week, Ohio Democrats waded into two other fights.

On Thursday, the party and its supporters submitted more than 300,000 signatures toward a 2012 ballot challenge to Ohio's new elections law, a measure that shrinks both the in-person and absentee early-voting windows and eliminates early voting on Sundays and in the three days before the election. The law is on hold while the signatures are being counted, and would not be in effect for the 2012 presidential election if a challenge makes the ballot.

President Barack Obama's re-election campaign got involved in that fight, signaling the high stakes involved in controlling how and when voters may cast their ballots.

Dan Smith, a University of Florida political science professor and expert in direct democracy, said voting on ballot measures tends to fall along partisan lines so political parties see initiatives and referendums as a way to mobilize their troops.

"The payoff can be considerable, especially when a party's partisans show lackluster enthusiasm toward their own candidates," Smith said in an email. "Such seems to be the case for Democrats in 2012, and the enthusiasm gap for core Democrats toward President Obama. A few choice ballot measures may be just the medicine needed to cajole liberals to the polls; once there, they'll most likely cast a ballot for the President."

Also, on Wednesday, the Ohio Democratic Party filed suit in the state's high court over Republican-drawn congressional maps signed into law by Kasich two days earlier. The party is seeking an Ohio Supreme Court ruling on the legality of a last-minute legislative maneuver by Republicans that effectively shielded the maps from a ballot challenge. A ruling in Democrats' favor would clear them to begin collecting signatures for a 2012 ballot challenge.

Neeley said he sees litigation over the map as separate from Democrats' other policy fights. "No one should ever be surprised when a congressional map lands in court," he said. "That's to be expected."

A challenge to JobsOhio, Kasich's private economic development board, is moving its way through the courts. That effort has been spearheaded by two Democratic state lawmakers and ProgressOhio, a liberal policy group with ties to Democrats and organized labor.

Neeley said all the disputes over policy may have been assuaged had Kasich and fellow Republicans been more conciliatory to Democrats as significant policy legislation was being drafted.

"It's a bit of a misread by him about how much people were going to be antagonized by some of these actions," Neeley said. "Look at Ohio: We're a 50/50 state, with marginal variation on the big elections _ variation that's always within the margin of error. Any tilting too far by any of the parties, you're going to anger and activate a large percentage of the population _ because a large percentage resides in the other camp. It's not like we're a 70/30 state. We're as purple as they get."



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The Associated Press