DAYTON — Three candidates are running to become Ohio secretary of state and all are calling for making the office more efficient and ensuring the integrity of elections.
The two front-runners – state Sen. Jon Husted, R-Kettering, and Franklin County Clerk of Courts Maryellen O’Shaughnessy, a Democrat, have traded barbed accusations, while Libertarian Charles Earl has run a quiet campaign out of the fray.
The secretary of state is Ohio’s chief elections officer responsible for overseeing elections in partnership with county election boards. The secretary is a member of the state Apportionment Board, which draws state legislative districts, and is responsible for some services to businesses, such as handling incorporation paperwork.
The job pays $107,453 annually and is a four-year term. Here’s a look at the candidates:
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Husted says he is best for the secretary of state job because of his knowledge of the issues and his experience as House speaker from 2005 to 2008.
He would like to see the secretary of state’s job eliminated, pushing the business functions to the department of development and having the elections functions taken over by a nonpartisan commission.
“I’m trying to find innovative ways to reduce the cost of providing services through state government,” he said. “If that means in the long run shrinking the size of the secretary of state’s office and reducing my authority, I’m willing to look at that.”
But first, said Husted, the state should revamp the apportionment process. He and House Speaker Armond Budish, D-Beachwood, championed unsuccessful legislation to revamp the process of apportionment, which is used every 10 years to redraw legislative districts based on the census.
Husted said he opposes the uses of business filing fees to subsidize the operations of the secretary of state’s office. He said he would ask the legislature to lower those fees and make it less expensive for businesses.
About 70 percent of the secretary of state’s fiscal year 2010 budget came from business fees, which subsidize elections functions such as the elections division and attorneys, campaign finance staff, and technology staff, according to Kevin Kidder, spokesman for Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner.
Husted said he would reduce the size of the office, make it more efficient and use more online functions for business services. But Husted would not specify what reductions he would make to manage the loss of revenue from reducing fees or taking those business functions and fees out of the office altogether.
Husted believes that the fees are “overcharging” businesses for services. He said if he were elected and asked the legislators to reduce the fees they would do it.
Husted said he would form a one-time bipartisan group of rural and urban elections officials to hear what they like and dislike about the elections system. The group would recommend new standards in time for the 2012 election. He is critical of the many directives issued during Brunner’s tenure giving guidance to boards on how to handle various issues.
He said he will take partisanship out of the job. He accused Brunner of being on a “witch hunt” against him when she ruled that his Montgomery County voter registration should be canceled because she said he lived in the Columbus suburb of Upper Arlington, rather than in Kettering.
Her ruling broke a tie at the Montgomery County Board of Elections, which investigated complaints alleging Husted wasn’t a resident. The Ohio Supreme Court overruled Brunner in the voting dispute.
Husted has said Kettering is his home but he stays with his wife and kids in Upper Arlington because of the demands of his job.
He has refused O’Shaughnessy’s call for him to release his income tax returns and say whether he takes a federal tax deduction for food and lodging available to legislators who live at least 50 miles from the state capital.
The 2009 financial disclosure statement Husted is required to file showed he accepted nearly $4,100 in mileage reimbursement from the House and Senate.
O’Shaughnessy said her administrative experience running the Franklin County Clerk of Courts office makes her perfectly suited to operate the secretary of state’s office.
Since she took office in 2009, O’Shaughnessy said she’s made the clerk’s office run more efficiently, reduced turnaround time, put court documents online and instituted ethics training, which she said emboldened employees to come forward and report the activities of an employee who was later convicted in a vehicle title fraud case.
Husted criticizes her for buying office furniture, which she said cost $33,664 for an office of more than 230 people and made up about 0.25 percent of her budget.
Husted also criticized her for voting for a pay raise when she was on Columbus City Council, accusing her in an ad of voting for “her own personal stimulus package.” His accusation was found to be false by The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer’s PolitiFact Ohio.
O’Shaughnessy said she voted for the raise after her 1997 election, but by law was not eligible to receive it unless she was re-elected to another term. She was re-elected and then declined the approved pay raises for 2003 and 2004 due to the city’s financial problems, according to letters she and other council members sent to the Columbus auditor.
O’Shaughnessy said Husted’s allegations, made in TV ads, are erroneous in their implications.
“That makes me mad because it attacks the people who work for me. It implies that I’m padding my own pockets,” said O’Shaughnessy.
As House speaker Husted in 2005 and 2007 appointed himself chairman of the rules and references committee, which comes with an additional $6,500 annual stipend.
“Incumbent State Senator Jon Husted will do anything to make a buck of the people of Ohio,” said Heidi Hubmann, spokeswoman for O’Shaughnessy.
Husted’s spokesman Ryan Frazee said legislator pay was set before Husted took office and he “received compensation for the committee he chaired just like the other 28 committee chairs do.”
O’Shaughnessy’s 10-point plan, if she is elected, includes improving business operations and using more online filing, revamping the reapportionment process, holding voting machine vendors accountable for accuracy and quality, and improving voting registration, access to voting and turnout. She said she also wants to streamline public records and campaign finance reports.
O’Shaughnessy opposes Husted’s plan to reduce the business filing fees or shift that work and those revenues to another state office. She argues that it is irresponsible to erode a revenue stream that makes up 70 percent of the budget and pays for elections services that otherwise would need a general fund subsidy from the state budget.
She supports reforming the reapportionment process, but disagrees with Husted that the only way to do it is with a Constitutional amendment. She believes administrative changes by the existing Apportionment Board can reduce the impact of politics on the process.
O’Shaughnessy disagrees with his idea of replacing the secretary of state’s elections functions with a board. She said that will lead to more gridlock, and would eliminate the accountability of having one person at the top who is responsible for doing the job.
O’Shaughnessy said she also would work with the legislature to improve campaign finance regulations, improve transparency and ensure that all contributed money can be traced directly back to the contributor.
Earl, a former state representative, said he was a Republican for 42 years and switched to Libertarian last year.
Earl said he has support from some tea party groups although he doesn’t have time to be active in one of the groups himself. He believes the government restricts people too much.
“Our freedoms and liberties are being limited every day,” Earl said.
He said he would streamline the business functions of the secretary of state office. He supports nonpartisan reapportionment. Earl believes there is corruption in the elections system although he offered no proof of this.
Earl said board of elections workers and poll workers need to be better trained.
He said he would tighten voter identification restrictions — forbidding the use of utility bills as ID at the polls and requiring some form of government identification, perhaps issued by the county.
But he wants less rules for petitioners seeking a place on the ballot.