Ohio’s Confusing Republican Ballot

Lots of Republicans voting in today’s Ohio primary are confused, and understandably so. The Republican presidential candidates’ names are listed twice on the ballot, once under the heading “For Delegates-at-Large and Alternates-at-Large” and again under “For District Delegates and District Alternates.” If this weren’t enough, different candidates’ names appear under the first and second contests on some Ohio ballots.  Mike Huckabee and/or Rick Santorum, both of whom have withdrawn, will appear on the “District Delegates” contest in some congressional districts but not others (see p. 7 of this directive).

What makes this a real head-scratcher is that the state’s Republican primary is winner-take-all, with the highest vote-getter getting all of Ohio’s 66 delegates.  The Secretary of State’s office will reportedly release vote totals for both the “Delegates-at-Large” and “District Delegates” contests, but the state party says that it plans to consider only the at-large delegate vote in determining who gets Ohio’s delegates. And the “District Delegates” contest will appear at the top of page on at least some ballots (like this one), with the “Delegates-at-Large” contest – the one that matters – further down on the left side.  This problem is reminiscent of problematic ballot formats in past elections, like Florida’s 2006 election for the 13th Congressional District, California’s 2003 recall election, and even the infamous butterfly ballot in Florida’s 2000 presidential election.  It’s possible that some voters will inadvertently fail to cast a vote that counts.

So what’s going on here? Why are the Republican presidential candidates listed twice?  Could this confusing ballot have been avoided?  It’s pretty clear that it could have been, though figuring out how this happened – and who’s responsible– is a bit more complicated.

The explanation that’s been offered is that the double-listing of the Republican candidates is a relic from the proportional system used in past elections, which allowed candidates to win delegates at the congressional district level even if they lost statewide.  Last year, Ohio’s Republican-controlled legislature enacted a bill, signed by Governor Kasich, which moved the state primary date back to March 15.  That allowed for the state’s Republican delegates to be allocated on a winner-take-all basis pursuant to national Republican Party rules, a change perceived as helpful to Governor Kasich’s campaign given the likelihood that he would win his home state.

The 2015 legislation (HB 153) changed the primary date, the story goes, but didn’t change the law on the ballot language.  That’s true enough, but it doesn’t completely explain the double-listing of candidates.  After all, the Democratic primary ballot lists the candidates only once, even though the relevant statutes don’t differentiate between the two major parties.  Something else must be going on here.

The key provision appears to be Ohio Revised Code 3513.151.  Subsection (B) addresses at-large delegates, while subsection (C) addresses district delegates.   The latter subsection provides:

The state central committee of each major political party, through its chairperson, not later than ninety days prior to the date of the presidential primary election, shall file with the secretary of state a statement that stipulates, in accordance with rules adopted by each state central committee at a meeting open to all members of the committee’s party, whether or not the names of candidates for district delegate and district alternate to the national convention of that chairperson’s party are to be printed on the ballot. The secretary of state shall prescribe the form of the ballot for the election of district delegates and district alternates of each political party in accordance with such statement. If the state central committee of a political party fails to so provide such statement, the secretary of state shall prescribe a form of ballot on which the names of candidates for delegate and alternate to such national convention do not appear on the ballot.

The “names of candidates” referred to above are the convention delegate candidates, not the presidential candidates. Presumably, the state Republican and Democratic parties both filed the statements contemplated by this statute, though I’ve yet found them.  At any rate the Ohio Secretary of State issued this directive (2015-42) at the end of last year, which prescribes the form of both the Republican and Democratic ballots.  Neither lists the delegates’ names and, again, only the Republican ballot double-lists the candidates.

It’s true that the major parties allocate their Ohio delegates differently – Democrats doing so proportionally and Republicans on a winner-take-all basis – but that doesn’t explain the different ballot formats, especially since both parties have some at-large and some district delegates. Though I’m not certain, I suspect that differences in the parties’ statements to the Secretary of State explains why the presidential candidates are listed twice on the Republican ballot but only once on the Democratic ballot.  (If anyone has information on this, please email me.)  So it looks like it’s probably the Ohio Republican Party that’s responsible for this confusing ballot.  I suppose it’s conceivable that something nefarious is afoot, but Hanlon’s Razor makes me inclined to believe that this is just a mistake.

Whatever the explanation, it’s a disservice to Ohio’s Republican voters. And the consequences could be serious, since Ohio’s vote could well determine whether Trump goes into the Cleveland convention with a majority of delegates or, alternatively, whether there’s a contested convention. I’m guessing it won’t just be election officials saying the election officials’ prayer in Ohio tonight.


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