There can be little doubt that Ohio’s democracy faces enormous challenges as the year 2006 draws to a close. Its “pay to play” political culture has been the subject of nationwide attention. Campaign cash has been playing a significant role in policymaking and in appointments made to public office. The most recent focal point of this problem was the “Noe coin scandal” involving a rare coin dealer whose lavish campaign contributions were rewarded not only with appointments to public office but also with a lucrative investment contract. In the area of redistricting, the state has an unfortunate tradition of carving districts to benefit the party that happens to control the process at any one time. However, both Democrats and Republicans have resisted reform at various times. The sometimes vicious campaigns for judicial elections, along with the enormous sums required to mount a campaign, have contributed to a loss of faith in the judiciary. There are also systemic problems with the state’s system of election administration, which came to the fore in the 2004 election season. Foremost among these is the fact that elections are run by partisan officials with a direct stake in their outcome.

Collectively, these issues have a made a dent on public confidence in state government. An August 2006 survey commissioned by the Joyce Foundation found that 54 percent of Ohioans believed that the state was headed “on the wrong track,” and that 43 percent were “extremely concerned” by the influence of money on politics. Yet there is also considerable hope among Ohioans that things can be made better. Most people surveyed believe that reforms such as limits on judicial fundraising, better reporting requirements for lobbyists, or public financing of campaigns could make a positive difference. A recent poll by Quinnipiac University found that 49 percent of Ohio voters believe that the issue of political corruption is extremely important and an additional 34 percent think it is very important.

The purpose of this report is to provide a broad-ranging overview of the problems that have emerged in recent years with Ohio’s democratic process and to propose some measures that could improve matters. We do not purport to provide an in-depth analysis of the various issues addressed. That would take several hundred pages to accomplish adequately. Nor does this report contain any new empirical or legal research on the challenges facing Ohio’s democracy. Finally, it is not our purpose here to lay blame on any political party or individuals for the development of these problems. What we do attempt to do is to summarize the challenges that Ohio democracy faces in 2006, and to suggest how we Ohioans might collectively confront those challenges.

The report consists of seven major parts. First, to provide context, we offer a brief historical overview of Ohio’s political culture. Second, we discuss the state’s redistricting process, which has allowed the dominant party to gerrymander district lines to advance its own incumbents’ interests, contributing to the polarization of legislative bodies. Third, we survey the state’s system of election administration, including the rules governing registration and voting, as well as the need for nonpartisanship on the part of those charged with running the state’s system. Fourth, we examine the state’s system of campaign finance, tracing the enormous role that money has played in shaping policy and discussing the pay-to-play system for which the state has now become infamous. Fifth, we address the ethical violations that have plagued Ohio government in recent years, including the inadequate enforcement of currently existing ethics rules. Sixth, we describe the issues that have emerged in Ohio’s judicial elections, including the infusion of money into the process by entities with a direct interest in the outcome of cases decided in the courts. Seventh and finally, we discuss the weaknesses in the state’s public open records and open meeting laws, which have contributed to a lack of transparency.

In each of these areas, we have attempted to engage in diagnosis and prescription. Our proposed reforms include the following:

  • Redistricting should be done by an independent nonpartisan or bipartisan commission, with competitiveness among the criteria that should be considered in drawing district lines.
  • State law should be amended to remove unnecessary barriers to registration and participation, and to transfer authority for running state elections to an independent official or entity, so as to ensure evenhanded administration of elections.
  • Ohio’s contribution limits should be tightened and transparency improved through a centralized database, with major donors and registered lobbyists prohibited from serving on state boards or commissions.
  • Better information about lobbying activities and potential ethics violations should be made available to the public, with enforcement of existing ethical rules improved through stiffer penalties.
  • The state should move to full public financing of judicial campaigns or, failing that, should implement better reporting and recusal rules to dispel the impression that justice is for sale.
  • Ohio’s public records and open meetings laws should be made more easily enforceable, with training provided to local officials on what is and is not permitted, and the transparency of the state legislative process should be improved.

There is certainly room for disagreement on the magnitude of the problems identified in this report, and these recommendations should be considered a work in progress, to be refined through further dialogue. We nevertheless hope that this report will prompt a serious conversation among Ohioans of all political stripes of what can be done to make our political system work better for everyone.

The authors wish to thank Kathleen Clyde, Jason Danklefsen, Grant Earich, Eric Lowe, and Anthony Tedesco for their excellent research assistance, Angela Oster for her work on graphics, and the Joyce Foundation for its generous support of this project.