Libertarians win challenge to Ohio ballot limits

JULIE CARR SMYTH AP Statehouse Correspondent Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- A federal judge on Tuesday blocked newly imposed Ohio limits to ballot access for minor parties, increasing the chances that Republican Gov. John Kasich will face a third-party challenger this fall.

U.S. District Judge Michael Watson in Columbus issued his preliminary injunction in a constitutional challenge filed by the Libertarian Party of Ohio to a law that opponents call "The John Kasich Re-election Protection Act."

The legislation's sponsor disputes the characterization. And Kasich has said he didn't request the bill.

The law, signed by the governor in November, established what qualifies as a political party and what percentage of the vote must be won to maintain that status. The previous qualifications were deemed unconstitutional in 2006, and third parties had been qualifying for the ballot at the secretary of state's discretion.

No minor party operating in the state received the percentage of votes in the last election that the new law would have required to remain a qualified party this year. Libertarians and other third parties objected on grounds that the law had changed the rules in the midst of campaign activities for this year's statewide elections, including signature collection.

Watson effectively agreed. While acknowledging "Ohio's interests in regulating ballot access so as to prevent ballot overcrowding, voter confusion, and frivolous candidacies," he said that "preventing retroactive application of (this law), however, does not harm those interests."

Without the opportunity for a primary, Ohio's minor party candidates would have to collect about 30,000 signatures to get on the general election ballot rather than getting on automatically. They could also lose the fundraising and name recognition benefits of a spring primary.

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican sued in the case, had pushed passage of the new third-party rules in time for this year's election. Husted's spokesman, Matt McClellan, said the office was carefully reviewing Watson's ruling to determine how to proceed.

The lawsuit drew together some odd bedfellows, including the state's Green and Constitution parties represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The complaint was originally filed by the Ohio Libertarians and is connected to the group's case that also challenges a separate law's requirements on petition circulators. That law, enacted in June, requires that individuals who circulate candidate petitions be Ohio residents.

The bill setting up new third-party rules moved quickly through Ohio's GOP-dominated Legislature as Ohio Republicans had faced an increasingly outspoken tea party movement. A tea party challenger poised to take on Kasich for the Republican nomination briefly surfaced last week, then dropped out of the running after his running mate's debts and tax liens drew public attention.