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Should Ohio impose a pre-election moratorium on officeholders’ mailings and ads? Editorial Board Roundtable

September 27, 2018

Should Ohio impose a pre-election moratorium on officeholders’ mailings and ads? Editorial Board Roundtable

Last week, Akron attorney Adam VanHo, the Democratic candidate for the state Senate seat now held by Republican Frank LaRose, who’s running for secretary of state, proposed a four-month moratorium before an election on what he called “softcore political ads” by officeholders who are able to use taxpayer-funded communications avenues such as mailers, public service ads and videos to reach voters.

“In recent weeks,” VanHo stated in his Sept. 20 news release, “Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine has used taxpayer resources to release videos related to issues like opiates, online dating and ticket scams – all messages surrounding his gubernatorial campaign themes.” 

VanHo acknowledged both Democratic and Republican officeholders have used such means to promote themselves.

He called for “restrictions on candidates using their names or likenesses on official materials, including videos and printed items, for a 120-day period prior to the official’s name appearing on the ballot for any position.”

VanHo cited among prior abuses Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel’s taxpayer-financed $1.84 million public service TV ad campaign in 2016 and 2017 that featured himself and Ohio State University football coach Urban Meyer -- ads that ran shortly before Mandel announced a run for U.S. Senate. The Republican-run legislature subsequently tightened state Controlling Board oversight of such spending.

Should Ohio adopt a four-month moratorium on such ads or enact other restrictions, or is this simply an advantage that incumbents possess that has the dual virtue of making sure that voters are informed about what their elected representatives are up to? Our editorial board roundtable offers its thoughts and we welcome readers’ reactions in the comments. 

Thomas Suddes, editorial writer:

This would be way too complicated to police. Do we really want the Ohio Elections Commission policing a state office’s letterhead? As for public service ads that portray an officeholder, easy solution: Ban state funding.

Ted Diadiun, editorial board member: 

This may be a regulation in search of a problem, but I agree that these mailings might give incumbents an unfair advantage at taxpayers’ expense. A 120-day moratorium is too sweeping and far too long, however. A better solution might be to allow without restriction regular communications that have been established over the course of the incumbent’s term, but ban use of such ads in the closing days of the campaign.

Lisa Garvin, editorial board member:

It seems like the only time I hear from my elected officials is right around an election, when their “news updates” letting me know what a great job they’ve done will join the flood of campaign mailers and TV ads from candidates running for office. The incumbent seeking re-election can justify using taxpayer funds by calling these ads official news instead of campaign material, knowing that the difference is lost on a lot of voters. VanHo’s request for a moratorium on so-called softcore political ads seems reasonable enough, and helps level the field for incumbents and their challengers. 

Eric Foster, editorial board member: 

Part of conducting business as an elected official is communicating with the public you serve. Yes this creates an inherent advantage during campaign season, but the benefit to the public of open communication far outweighs any political disadvantage an opponent faces. You sign up for that when you challenge an incumbent.

Mary Cay Doherty, editorial board member:

Adam VanHo raises valid concerns.  Using taxpayer funded “communication” pieces as de facto campaign materials under the thinly veiled guise of accountability to constituents is a misuse of public funds. Even the U.S. House of Representatives restricts these types of communications within 90 days of an election. (Creative congressmen and women circumvent the rule, but it exists nonetheless.) VanHo’s proposed 120-day limit is excessive, but a 30-60-day limit would curtail this misappropriation of taxpayer dollars.

Elizabeth Sullivan, director of opinion, cleveland.com:

Given that we know such communications lend themselves to abuse that can confer an unfair advantage to the incumbent -- and an unmerited cost to taxpayers -- this issue is ripe for legislative review and reform in Ohio. 

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* Email general questions about our editorial board or comments on this editorial board roundtable to Elizabeth Sullivan, director of opinion, at esullivan@cleveland.com. 

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