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That’s not how we did it back in Pennsylvania

After living the first 25 years of my life in Pennsylvania, it came as quite a shock to find, when I moved across the border to Ohio, that voters here actually got to decide things like how much tax you want to pay.

To be sure, back home in the commonwealth, local government operates very differently.

Pennsylvania cities are not “incorporated.” “Village” is just an unofficial label we gave to areas where houses have popped up around crossroads — but they have no real government affiliation. And many of us lived in “boroughs.”

As for me, I grew up in very rural Adams Township, on a country road that was then referred to by the U.S. Postal Service as “Rural Delivery Route 2.” It connected the tiny coal-mining community known as “Mine 42” to our south with the (unincorporated) village of Elton to our north. The closest real town was Windber. It was a borough that had sprung up around multiple coal mines in the region. Just one, I believe, still operates today.

In Pennsylvania, tax millage is decided by the elected public bodies — not by the voters. If voters don’t like a tax hike, then they can speak up at election time. By then, of course, it was probably too late if the local school board or borough council already had raised your taxes.

I recall my great surprise, after moving to Ohio about 30 years ago, when I first heard of public campaigns for tax issues on the local ballot. Along with local leaders somehow successfully convincing voters to cast ballots to actually increase their taxes, another ballot oddity I soon discovered was the “special election.”

Early in my time here, I remember talking to the man I eventually married as he tried to explain to me how it all worked in Ohio.

I distinctly recall him telling me that local elected officials, facing repeated defeats of tax levies, sometimes resorted to a “special election” in August, which significantly improved their odds of passage.

“How’s that?” I asked.

Because, he explained, voter turnout in August is generally low because people are on vacation, or uninformed voters won’t know there is an election or, if they do, they simply might not care to go vote on just one issue. That means results are more easily manipulated because those who do care will mobilize “yes” votes. At first I was skeptical.

But as time went on, I realized his description of special elections was spot on — and I also came to learn that special elections were extremely costly to taxpayers who footed the bill whether or not they supported the issue.

Now, decades later, Ohio legislators are looking to end August special elections.

Dec. 9, the Ohio House of Representatives approved House Bill 458 legislation to eliminate August special elections. The bill now moves to the Ohio Senate for consideration.

Legislators supporting the measure argue that August special elections impose an unnecessary financial and administrative burden on Ohio’s 88 county boards of elections, and because of the historically low voter turnout in August elections, they produce skewed election results that often do not accurately reflect the will of the people.

Upon passage of HB 458, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said this:

“August special elections generate chronically low turnout because voters aren’t expecting an election to occur. This is bad news for the civic health of our state. Interest groups often manipulatively put issues on the ballot in August because they know fewer Ohioans are paying attention.”

He’s right. In November 2020, for example, Ohioans set a record for voter turnout of 74 percent. However, just a few months earlier, in August 2020, special elections held in Hamilton and Cuyahoga counties saw voter turnout of 11.8 percent and 6.8 percent respectively.

Indeed, special elections are expensive and can be easily skewed. Also, voters can easily wait a few more months to cast ballots on important issues during the next standard election.

Looking back, I admit that I now prefer many Ohio government operations over Pennsylvania. Special elections aren’t among them.

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