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Ohio House sends foreign influence and Biden voting legislation to Senate

The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on News5Cleveland.com under a content sharing agreement.

The Ohio House on Thursday approved measures to change the presidential nomination deadline, even as Democrats announced a virtual convention to meet state deadlines and ban foreign contributions in campaigns on state issues. Democratic members argue that the latter bill is more likely to eradicate ballot initiatives across the state than foreign influence.

The approvals come just under a week after Gov. Mike DeWine called a special session to put President Joe Biden on the ballot in Ohio and consider the ban on foreign money. Previous legislative efforts had stalled as the Ohio Senate tried to use the high-stakes vote to tie its foreign influence provision to the nomination changes.

On Tuesday, shortly after the special session began, the Senate approved its latest legislative proposal. Once again, senators applied changes to presidential appointments and bans on foreign influence to unrelated legislation already passed by the state House. Also Tuesday, Democrats announced their virtual convention, eliminating the need for action from Ohio lawmakers.

Thursday’s session did not go smoothly. As House Speaker Jason Stephens attempted to introduce the first of two pieces of legislation, Democrats shouted him down, attempting to adjourn the session before it even began. On its way to passage, the foreign influence measure was amended to include green card holders in the definition of “foreigners.” That puts the Ohio bill at odds with federal law.

Supporters emphasize that the foreign influence language would expand an existing ban on foreign contributions to issuance campaigns. In practice, holdouts argue, it would also require grassroots organizers to register as PACs, significantly raising the bar for getting a proposal on the ballot. In addition, the measure transfers significant power over ballot proposals to the Ohio attorney general’s office, rather than to the bipartisan Ohio Elections Commission as Democrats wanted.

The push to ban foreign contributions in election campaigns comes in the wake of a number of high-profile statewide issues that served as a rebuke to Republican leaders. Senate President Matt Huffman in particular took the losses hard and hinted at continued efforts to undermine these initiatives.

The Chamber’s response

In the House of Representatives, Republicans and Democrats agree that limiting foreign influence is a good idea. Democrats and at least some Republicans also expressed doubts about the sweeping bans the Senate was considering. On Thursday morning, Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, detailed the policy changes he negotiated in the foreign currency bill in the House Oversight Committee.

“The first thing is that the new bill puts everything in a new code section, and is only five pages long,” Seitz said. “So we’ve taken to heart what I said, that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and we’re being very concise and clear in what we’re doing here in the bill.”

The proposal would make it illegal for a foreign national to spend money on candidates or state issues. The first offense would be a first-degree felony, and on subsequent offenses it would progress to a fifth-degree misdemeanor. Seitz explained that it would also put enforcement in the hands of the attorney general instead of the Ohio Election Commission.

“We all know that the OEC spends a lot of time on it and is often not able to judge anything before the elections,” Seitz explains.

Democrats pushed back strongly on further strengthening the AG.

“Any voter in Ohio, any voter,” said Rep. Dani Isaacsohn, D-Cincinnati, “can allege a violation of a law that is poorly drafted, overly broad, incredibly vague, very confusing, difficult to understand — can allege a violation of that law, and then that allegation can be promptly and promptly investigated and prosecuted by the Attorney General.”

He noted that the AG would be responsible for allegations of foreign influence in any race, which could be used in political fights.

“So, for example, if someone votes incorrectly for Speaker of the House of Representatives, their campaign committee could face some accusations,” he said, referring to the ongoing battle between Speaker Stephens and some conservative members of the House of Representatives.

More fundamentally, Isaacsohn criticized linking that bill to a bill to get President Joe Biden on the ballot in Ohio in the first place.

“What we’re saying to the voters of Ohio is that if you want the right to vote for the president of the United States, you have to trade away some of your other rights,” Isaacsohn said.

Parliamentary debate and amendments

As the session was about to begin, Minority Leader Allison Russo and Rep. Michael Skindell, D-Lakewood, called for adjournment. With the Democratic National Committee announcing a virtual nominating vote, they argued that the core purpose of the special session had already been established.

That didn’t go anywhere.

Then Seitz took the floor and explained the bill. He dismissed Democrats’ concerns about the AG taking control of the foreign influence investigation. The state elections commission is acting too slowly and has fewer resources, he argued. And Seitz instead tried to turn the issue against Democrats.

“I remember from 2016 to 2018, or thereabouts, we heard from the national Democrats and they had appointed a special counsel to investigate this issue instead of going through the Federal Election Commission. All we heard from Mueller and the gang for three years was Russia. Russia, Russia, Russia, Russia.”

Notably, special counsel Robert Mueller, like any other special counsel, was appointed to protect the investigation from political influence – a level of independence that Democrats say an elected attorney general simply does not have.

Rep. Isaacsohn argued that Attorney General Dave Yost has repeatedly demonstrated “a willingness to use his office to pursue political gains.” He noted that the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered him to stop obstructing a vote to end qualified immunity, and that another lawsuit has raised questions about his alleged role in an effort to end the repeal of HB 6 by undermining a citizen.

“If you want to clarify state law to be consistent with federal law, that would be fine with us,” Isaacsohn emphasized. “We are against foreign money in our politics and would support a clean bill that actually does that. Instead, this bill uses vague language to create a culture of fear and confusion around participating in political activities.”

Isaacsohn’s amendment to keep investigative power in the hands of the Ohio Election Commission failed.

Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, introduced another amendment that would use a broader definition of “foreign national.” Unlike the federal definition, it would also include lawful permanent residents or green card holders.

He pointed to a 2022 ballot initiative that bans noncitizens from voting in Ohio elections. Existing laws already prevented them from participating in state or federal competitions, but some municipalities wanted to allow them to express their opinions on local matters.

“The bill before us today,” Stewart argued, “says that the same green card holders who are not citizens and who cannot vote in our elections are, for one reason or another, still allowed to spend millions of dollars to potentially influence the same elections as they do. are not allowed to vote.”

“This makes no sense,” he said.

Without extending the bill’s prohibitions to green card holders, Stewart argued, the measure has “an asterisk.” He dismissed it as a “ban on Diet Coke for foreign money.”

Seitz pushed back, arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that upholding penalties on noncitizens who make campaign contributions discriminates against green card holders. He cited a footnote in which Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote that including lawful permanent residents would raise “substantial questions that would not be raised by this case.”

“Why did they say it was a substantial question?” Seitz argued. “They’re trying to tell us something by saying that.”

Nevertheless, Stewart’s amendment passed easily.

Before the measure was voted on, Minority Leader Allison Russo spoke and warned Republicans that their efforts would backfire. She explicitly referenced the Republican Party’s poor showing in last year’s statewide ballot measures and referenced the anti-gerrymandering proposal scheduled for November of this year.

“Your seizure of power today will not be forgotten in November,” she said, “just as it was not forgotten in August when you were defeated, just as it was not forgotten in November last year when you were defeated.”

The House approved the foreign influence measure along party lines.

The nomination deadline — the ostensible reason for the special session — sparked some debate, but none as controversial as the foreign money bill. Rep. Jamie Callender, R-Concord, brought Republican frustration with lawsuits aimed at keeping Donald Trump off the ballot.

“Those of us on this side of the aisle saw that as fundamentally unfair, immoral and unjust,” Callender said. “We’re better than that here in Ohio. Let’s show the world that we are better than that.”

The bill passed, and passed easily, but Callender’s appeal to the chamber’s better angels fell on deaf ears. Thirty-one Republicans – nearly half the caucus – voted no.

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