State election regulators in Ohio delivered a blow to two minor parties on Thursday, dismissing complaints that alleged three debates this year that excluded their candidates for governor represented illegal corporate contributions.
In a unanimous vote without discussion, the Ohio Elections Commission tossed out complaints brought by the Libertarian and Green parties over three face-offs between Republican Mike DeWine and Democrat Richard Cordray, including one organized by the newly formed Ohio Debate Commission.
Facing the complaints was an ironic twist for the debate commission, a presumably nonpartisan collaboration among civic, media and academic partners that said its goal was to bring more accountability and consistency to Ohio debates.
Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich joined a growing number of high-profile candidates around the country when he refused to debate his rival, Democrat Ed FitzGerald, during a runaway re-election bid in 2014. The debate process, in general, has concerned voter advocates across the U.S. as it's become increasingly subject to boycotts, political positioning and onstage grand-standing that they see as unhelpful to democracy.
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But the minor parties and their candidates contended the new commission and debate sponsors benefited major parties over minor ones.
Specifically, they alleged in their elections complaints that The City Club of Cleveland, through its "alter-ego" the debate commission, as well as the University of Dayton and Marietta College, violated state election law by giving DeWine and Cordray valuable exclusive exposure that was unavailable to third-party candidates.
The governor's race, which DeWine won, also included Libertarian candidate Travis Irvine and Green Party candidate Constance Gadell-Newton.
Commissioner Scott Norman, who led the vote to dismiss, said he didn't think the minor parties had the law on their side. Debates featuring only the Democratic and Republican candidates are nothing new in Ohio.
"I don't think our role has changed," Norman said. "I think if you want to change that, you have to go across the street to the Legislature."
Gadell-Newton, an attorney who represented herself during Thursday's hearing, said she believes that indeed things have changed.
"I can't really speak to what has happened in the past," she said. "But I do think that, right now, there's a lot of political discontent and people are looking for something new."
She told commissioners that excluding her and Irvine from the debates was a disservice to voters, democracy and the free exchange of ideas.
Irvine, also present Thursday, said he was "surprised, but not surprised" by the outcome, which Libertarian party officials said simply affirmed the existing "two-party duopoly."
The Libertarians' initial complaint came in September, between the first and second debates. It alleges the first debate's sponsor, the University of Dayton, "planned, sponsored and staged" the debate "after being solicited and being aided and abetted by the Cordray and DeWine Campaigns."
"No pre-existing objective criteria — other than the participants being Richard Cordray and Mike DeWine — were published, documented, or in any way made available to the public, the press, the two minor political parties, or the two minor political parties' qualified gubernatorial candidates," the complaint said.
The Cleveland and Marietta sponsors were added to the complaint in October.
Attorneys for all three sponsors and both campaigns disputed the Libertarians' reading of Ohio law on Thursday, and their arguments won the day.
"The purpose of our joining together on the brief was simply to promote future debates because we think they are important to the electorate," said Cordray campaign attorney John Gilligan. "And the notion that third parties or fourth parties are somehow new in this state is simply inaccurate."
In a joint filing Nov. 15, DeWine, Cordray and their campaigns argued that the Libertarians are seeking to misapply corporate prohibitions contained in federal election law to an Ohio campaign. They said Ohio's definition of a "contribution" is "fundamentally different" from the federal one and defines a "thing of value" as something intended to influence an election for or against a candidate — not just anything that's connected to one.
Cleveland's City Club, a nonprofit behind the debate commission effort, argued that Ohio's ban on corporate campaign contributions is aimed at those intending to wield political influence, not to educate voters.
However, CEO Dan Moulthrop said participants in the debate commission project would meet Thursday to review how this year went and to make improvements beneficial to voters. The commission also sponsored a U.S. Senate debate.