Ohio Dems Pursue Election System Overhaul

Democrats pushing an overhaul of the election system in Ohio (search) — the state that swung the White House race to President Bush last year — are hoping timing truly is everything.

To the Democrats' delight, the four overhaul measures will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot at a time when the long-ruling Republican Party is engulfed in both an ethics scandal and a furor over an ill-fated state investment in rare coins.

"I think the biggest argument for these amendments happens to be the fact that the Republicans are out there saying, `Well, we don't have a problem,'" said Paul Tipps, a former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party.

Across the nation on Election Day, 39 issues will be decided in nine states, including a redistricting proposal in California backed by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (search).

In Ohio, unions and citizens groups calling themselves Reform Ohio Now are promoting the election overhaul measures as necessary to restore people's faith in state government.

Ohio voters will be asked if bipartisan boards — instead of elected officials — should draw lawmakers' districts and oversee elections and whether campaign contribution limits should be lowered. The state where some voters waited up to seven hours to cast ballots last November also will decide if everyone should be allowed to vote early by mail.

Authority over elections would shift from the secretary of state to a nine-member board. Last year, Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell (search) was criticized for being an honorary chairman of Bush's Ohio campaign and accused of trying to suppress the vote with rulings on registration forms and provisional ballots, a charge he denied.

Ohio, a swing state, re-elected Bush by 118,000 votes. Republicans control the Legislature, all statewide offices and a majority of congressional seats. The Democrats have been out of power for 15 years and are routinely outspent.

Democrats are hoping the overhaul would take some of the politics out of redistricting and make their party more competitive.

Tipps said that redistricting currently is designed to protect incumbents. Out of 133 legislative and congressional elections last year, only four seats changed parties, and two of them were open races.

Currently, five elected statewide officials draw state legislative districts, and the Legislature creates the congressional map. The ballot measure would give mapmaking authority to a board headed by an appeals judge from each party, who would then appoint the three other members.

David Hopcraft, spokesman for the opponents' group, Ohio First, said districts should be drawn by the people voters elected to do so.

The ballot measures would also lower individual contribution limits from $10,000 to $1,000 in legislative races. But the amounts some political action committees and parties could contribute would increase.

The state GOP has been hounded this year by scandals that have reached all the way to the governor's office.

Lame-duck Republican Gov. Bob Taft (search), the great-grandson of President William Howard Taft, became the first Ohio governor convicted of a crime for failing to report that he was treated to golf outings. He was fined the maximum $4,000.

Also, Tom Noe, a prominent Republican fundraiser and donor hired to manage a controversial investment in rare coins for the state, is suspected of stealing millions of dollars, and investigators want to know whether he steered any of the money to Bush.