Steve Hoffman ABJ Column: Unanimously wrong about Coughlin

Thursday, September 12th, 2013

The following column appeared in the Akron Beacon Journal on September 12, 2013.

Unanimously wrong about Coughlin
Seven justices spank the Summit elections board

by Steve Hoffman

Now that it is over, it is tempting to dismiss the dispute between Kevin Coughlin and the Summit County Board of Elections as just another dreary example of the lengths to which politicians will go to bend elections law to their purposes.

The trouble is, as things turned out, members of the elections board, not Coughlin, were doing the bending, blocking the former state senator from appearing on the November ballot as a nonpartisan candidate for Stow Municipal Court clerk.

Monday, the Ohio Supreme Court ordered Coughlin’s name to be placed on the ballot. The unanimous opinion shredded every argument the board threw at Coughlin, and there were several.

The board argued Coughlin gamed the legal system by delaying filing a writ of mandamus until such time as it qualified for expedited action by the Supreme Court. Most of the delay, the court found, was due to the board’s tardiness in producing a written transcript.

The board also argued Coughlin had “unclean hands” because, while he was in the Ohio Senate, he co-sponsored legislation that changed the way candidates for clerk of the Stow court may be nominated, opening up the possibility that a candidate could file for the nonpartisan November ballot, avoiding a partisan primary, the other route to the fall ballot.

Wrong, again, said the high court. The “reprehensible conduct” the board accused Coughlin of engaging in was to rely on “a duly enacted statute,” the court said.

Finally, the court said it could find nothing in Ohio law to support the board’s central argument: that Coughlin, an active Republican, would have to disaffiliate himself from the party to qualify as a nonpartisan candidate.

This was not unfamiliar territory in Summit County, which had seen candidates filing as independents kicked off the ballot due to strong party ties.

But the court reminded the board that there is a big difference between nonpartisan and independent, and that the law on disaffiliation does not apply to nonpartisan candidates.

The difference is this: Nobody on the nonpartisan ballot is identified with a party label, while independents appear next to those with party labels.

The court said “nonpartisan” is a description that applies to the type of office sought, while “independent” is a term that applies to candidates. In other words, it makes sense that voters should have the assurance, when facing a choice among a Republican, Democrat and independent for a particular partisan office, that the independent is not a shadow candidate for one of the parties.

By overturning a unanimous, bipartisan vote of the board of elections to block Coughlin from the ballot, the court’s decision raises questions about how the board could get it so wrong. Remember, this is not a dispute about whether Mrs. Fabitz belongs in Precinct Q; it is about a candidate’s right to appear on the ballot.

If there are “unclean hands,” they are those of board members. Each party has its own candidate for clerk of the Stow court, a patronage-rich position. Neither the Democrat, Diana Colavecchio, an appointed incumbent, nor the Republican, Frank Larson, mayor of Munroe Falls, can match Coughlin when it comes to name recognition.

More, Republican board member Alex Arshinkoff, chairman of the Summit County Republican Party, is a longtime foe of Coughlin, who backed an effort to oust Arshinkoff from his party position.

While Election Day meltdowns have been avoided, the board’s recent performance in other areas has raised questions, too. It adjusted precinct boundaries and voting locations before last year’s presidential election, then re-adjusted them after long lines resulted.

Budgets remain out of line with other counties of similar size, and tie votes (which must be broken by the Ohio secretary of state) have, at times, been so numerous that Summit County has led the state. Much time has been devoted to voter fraud, with only a few, hollow convictions.

But blocking an otherwise qualified candidate from the ballot is a different, and far more serious, matter. Coughlin was clearly not the favorite of either Republicans or Democrats on the board, his effort at making political comeback potentially an end-run around Colavecchio and Larson.

Rather than trying to take Coughlin out at the filing deadline, the partisans on the board should have concentrated all along on taking him out at the ballot box, taking their chances that Coughlin could be defeated in a fair fight.

You can read this article at Ohio.com here.

Previous article:
Next article: