By Frank Lewis
Portsmouth City Council took another step Monday night to prevent what happened in the last primary election from happening again. In that election, voters in the city’s Sixth Ward were allowed to vote for two candidates though the city had never made that a practice in the past.
Council gave first reading to an ordinance to take to Portsmouth voters an amendment that would clarify the guidelines for voting in a primary election, stating – “If the number of persons filing petitions for candidates for nomination as candidates at a primary election to such office does exceed, as to any such office, the number of candidates which may be nominated under provisions of the Charter, then a primary election shall be held for the purpose of nominating two candidates for election to offices to be voted for at such general election and a primary ballot shall be printed for said office containing language – ‘Vote for not more than 1.’”
“This one (reference to ordinance) regards primary elections,” First Ward Councilman Kevin W. Johnson said. “It specifically has to do with an issue we saw in our last primary.’
In that primary, three candidates were vying to become one of the two who would advance to the November general election to the Sixth Ward council seat. The three candidates were, incumbent Councilman Jeff Kleha, Shawn Stratton and Tom Lowe. However, for what officials say was the first time, the ballot read – “Vote for not more than two.” Stratton and Lowe came out on top and will face each other in November.
The first person to react to the ballot language was Portsmouth City Manager Derek Allen who objected to the outcome because he said voters should not have been allowed to vote for more than one candidate. With one seat open and three people running, Allen was of the opinion that, per the usual system, electors should not have been allowed to vote for more than one.
Scioto County Prosecutor Mark Kuhn issued an opinion, noting the City Charter is vague on several points surrounding the issue and, at the same time, the Ohio Revised Code does not contain a provision that addresses the particular issue with regard to the nomination of candidates in a primary election. He also noted that no challenge was made in a timely manner.
“Thus, the (Scioto County) Board (of Elections) interpreted the Charter to allow an elector to vote for two candidates since that is ‘the number of candidates required to be nominated;’ not an unreasonable interpretation given the plain language of the Charter although the Charter is somewhat vague in this regard,” Kuhn wrote in his opinion. “Hence, the issue is one involving how to interpret the language of the Charter of the City of Portsmouth, Ohio. It is my opinion that the interpretation of provisions of the Charter of the City of Portsmouth, Ohio should be provided by the Portsmouth City Solicitor, in that he is the chief legal official for the city of Portsmouth.”
The Daily Times asked City Solicitor John Haas his opinion.
“This was different than any other primary election held for any of the city offices over the last number of decades,” Haas said. “It has always been, ‘vote for 1,’ and I know the Charter language didn’t change. There have been no ordinances or other city legislation adopted to change the ballot language and as far as I know nothing in the state law has changed to require you vote for two to change that precedent.”
Monday’s first reading is an attempt by the city to keep the “Vote for not more than two” language from appearing on the primary ballot in the future.
Reach Frank Lewis at 740-353-3101, ext. 1928, or on Twitter @franklewis.