How the absence of the traditional spoiler could affect Ron O'Brien's reign

Editor's note: This story originally ran in the December issue of Columbus Monthly. Democrat Gary Tyack filed a petition to challenge O'Brien last month, after the article was published. 

Voters and political strategists often give little weight to third parties in Ohio. But in 2020, the absence of one could have a major impact on a local Republican stronghold—the Franklin County prosecutor’s office.

Except for judicial posts, it’s one of just two offices in Franklin County held by Republicans. Attorney Ron O’Brien has reigned since 1996, making him the longest-serving prosecutor in county history. He faced little to no ballot competition until 2016, when he won a narrow victory over Democrat Zach Klein, now the Columbus city attorney. O’Brien got 49 percent of the vote to Klein’s 45 percent. The remaining 6 percent went to Ohio Green Party candidate Bob Fitrakis.

Michael Sexton, chairman of the Franklin County Democratic Party, notes that the Green Party tends to peel away votes from the Democrats, not the Republicans, and some political analysts speculated that without Fitrakis in the race Klein would have won.

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O’Brien says he’s running for prosecutor again in 2020. Dec. 18 is the deadline to declare candidacies for the March primary, and at least two Democrats—Franklin County Auditor Michael Stinziano and Whitehall City Attorney Michael Bivens—have expressed an interest in running against him. Based on the 2016 results, a Democrat may have a decent chance of defeating O’Brien because, as of now, the Ohio Green Party isn’t eligible for the 2020 ballot.

Currently, the party doesn’t qualify because its candidates didn’t get at least 3 percent of the vote in Ohio’s 2018 election. A minor party needs to meet that standard in the most recent presidential or gubernatorial election to qualify for the ballot under a state law passed in 2013.

Fitrakis, a perennial third-party candidate and a political science professor at Columbus State Community College, calls the law extreme. “It seems designed not to give people choices,” he says. “Ohio has one of the most severe third-party laws.”

Joe Manchik, who’s running for Ohio’s 12th Congressional District as a Green Party candidate, says both the Democratic and Republican parties “are working real hard to destroy democracy in Ohio” by restricting minor party access to the ballot.

But there’s another way the Green Party could gain access. Under Ohio law, a minor party could field a candidate for the ballot in November next year if it obtains the signatures of 1 percent of the total number who cast votes for governor or president in the most recent election. For 2020, that means a minimum of 44,295 registered Ohio voters must sign, and at least half of the state’s congressional districts must be represented by 500 signatures each.

Manchik says that more than 30 Green Party members are gathering signatures across the state, hoping to meet the July 2020 deadline. But Fitrakis doesn’t believe volunteers can collect enough in time, and in any case, he has no plans to run again even if the Green Party succeeds in that effort.

As for O’Brien, he says he isn’t even thinking about next year’s election.

“I’m not concerned at this point about who’s running,” he says. “I’m focused on doing my job and representing the people of Franklin County.” When the election rolls around, he says he’ll present his lengthy record as prosecutor to the voters and let them decide.

In 2020, it appears likely they’ll have one less candidate to consider.

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