Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The February 26th Special Election Ballot Blunder

Perhaps, apparently like many others, you were not aware that on Tuesday, February 26th Toledo held a special election, The special election ballot was comprised of only two issues – both city charter amendments – Keep the Jail Downtown and the Lake Erie Bill of Rights. I was very surprised, as I reviewed the screen of the voting machine at my polling location that the ballot did not include a brief explanation of the ballot issues. There was no narrative, telling me the language of the proposed amendments, or describing what the resulting effects would be if the amendments were enacted. Only the titles of the issue appeared on the February 26th ballot.

In our internet-centric, and smartphone-dominated era, I wanted to click on an issue title with my finger expecting that it would take me to a summary or the full-text of the issue. I tried that, to no avail.

Later I would learn that the County Board of Elections had posted the full text of the ballot issues somewhere in my voting location, on poster-boards. What? This seems rather old-fashioned in an era of computer voting machines. I never did see the poster-boards, and poll workers did not direct my attention to them when I signed in with my photo-ID. After 30 years of voting I still wasn’t privy to this old-way of communicating the content of a ballot issue and just assumed, from past experience of seeing summaries of ballot issues on my computer voting screen, that my voting machine would present everything I needed to cast an informed vote.

According to the Lucas County Board of Elections, various attorneys draft ballot issue summary language and send it to the board of elections. In 2018, the ballot included the charter amendment establishing a regional water commission. Its language was very brief, simply asking if a regional water commission should be created but the summary did not explain the tasks or the purview of the proposed commission. Toledo’s ‘Sensible Marihuana Ordinance” appeared on the ballot in 2015 and, in that case, in one sentence told voters what its passage would do with the following language: “protects individual citizens rights and saves taxpayer’s money by lowering the penalty for marijuana to the lowest penalty allowed by state law.”

Searching for direction

Shouldn’t the February 26th ballot have included a sentence or two telling voters what each charter amendment would do?

LaVera Scott, director of the Lucas County Board of elections said that the City of Toledo provided the language for the marijuana ordinance in 2015, but no one provided the board with a summary for either of the two issues for the February 26, 2019 election. “Usually they send something,” she said, suggesting in this case it was left to activist groups pushing the issues to provide the summary language. “It is the Board of Elections and the City of Toledo’s responsibility to provide written descriptions of ballot issues,” commented Terry Lodge, an attorney with Toledoans for Safe Water, a group that spearheaded the Lake Erie Bill of Rights issue.

Ohio’s law suggests that the board of elections neglected its duty to provide voters with at least a brief summary of the issues on the ballot. Ohio Law states: “A condensed text that will properly describe the question, issue, or an amendment proposed….shall be used as prepared and certified by the secretary of state for state-wide questions or issues or by the board [of elections] for local questions or issues.”

The Lucas County Board of Elections does post on its website the full-text of ballot initiatives before any election.

Only Nine Percent of registered voters cast a ballot – A Crisis of Toledo Democracy?

Another conspicuous issue with this special election is its very low voter turnout. Only 8.9 percent, or 16,258, eligible Toledo voters voted in this special election. Should such a small number of citizens be able to determine local law?

“That’s very low…very, very low,” laughed Jeff Broxmeyer, assistant professor of political science and public administration at the University of Toledo, when asked about the turnout for this special election. “9 percent voter turnout I think is, by almost any standard, a kind of crisis of democratic participation.” “On the flip side it’s not something that is out of the ordinary for this kind of election,” He adds, “Local elections [have] very low turnout, that’s been true for maybe three-quarters of a century.”

In the 2017 general election, 51,476 voters voted for Toledo mayor, or only 17 percent of eligible voters. And Toledo citizens voted on another charter amendment in 2018 – the regional water commission amendment. Then a total of 76,851 voters voted, or about 25.4 percent of eligible voters – still relatively low turnout but almost three times the participation as in the February 26th election. The higher turnout in 2018 was most likely because the issue was on the ballot during a state-wide and federal election.

Asked if he thought there should be a rule that requires a minimum participation for these ballot issues to be enacted as law, Broxmeyer replied: “I think it makes sense when we’re talking about democracy that we’re talking about the community as a whole…Hypothetically you would want the entire community to have some kind of conversation before you move in a direction. But that’s not the world that we live in…”

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