Ohio election panel tosses complaint

COLUMBUS — State election regulators in Ohio delivered a blow to two minor parties on Thursday, dismissing complaints that alleged three debates this year that excluded their candidates for governor represented illegal corporate contributions.

In a unanimous vote without discussion, the Ohio Elections Commission tossed out complaints brought by the Libertarian and Green parties over three face-offs between Republican Mike DeWine and Democrat Richard Cordray, including one organized by the newly formed Ohio Debate Commission.

Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich joined a growing number of high-profile candidates around the country when he refused to debate his rival, Democrat Ed FitzGerald, during a runaway re-election bid in 2014. The debate process, in general, has concerned voter advocates across the U.S. as it’s become increasingly subject to boycotts, political positioning and onstage grand-standing that they see as unhelpful to democracy.

But the minor parties and their candidates contended the new commission and debate sponsors benefited major parties over minor ones.

Specifically, they alleged in their elections complaints that The City Club of Cleveland, through its “alter-ego” the debate commission, as well as the University of Dayton and Marietta College, violated state election law by giving DeWine and Cordray valuable exclusive exposure that was unavailable to third-party candidates.

The governor’s race, which DeWine won, also included Libertarian candidate Travis Irvine and Green Party candidate Constance Gadell-Newton.

Commissioner Scott Norman, who led the vote to dismiss, said he didn’t think the minor parties had the law on their side. Debates featuring only the Democratic and Republican candidates are nothing new in Ohio.

“I don’t think our role has changed,” Norman said. “I think if you want to change that, you have to go across the street to the Legislature.”

Gadell-Newton, an attorney who represented herself during Thursday’s hearing, said she believes that indeed things have changed.

“I can’t really speak to what has happened in the past,” she said. “But I do think that, right now, there’s a lot of political discontent and people are looking for something new.”

She told commissioners that excluding her and Irvine from the debates was a disservice to voters, democracy and the free exchange of ideas.

Irvine, also present Thursday, said he was “surprised, but not surprised” by the outcome, which Libertarian party officials said simply affirmed the existing “two-party duopoly.”

The Libertarians’ initial complaint came in September, between the first and second debates.