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There's nothing haphazard about the order of election issues on the Hamilton County ballot

Numbers might seem weird, but there is a system
Posted: 6:00 AM, Sep 15, 2016
Updated: 2016-09-15 10:00:50Z

HAMILTON COUNTY, Ohio -- Although the Clinton-Trump presidential race is attracting all the attention, voters in Hamilton County will determine the fate of an abundance of issues at the polls this November.

The Hamilton County Board of Elections has reported that 53 different issues will be on the ballot Nov. 8 when some 570,000 voters are eligible to go to the polls in 556 precincts.

And the number of issues -- often special tax levies for specific purposes -- could grow if any of the political subdivisions that operate under a charter form of government system decide they want an issue or a levy decided by voters.

The good news is that each ballot is tailored to a specific part of the county, so no one voter will have to wade through 53 or more issues after they have made their choices for a long list of candidates for office.

If you live in the city of Cincinnati, for example, you won't have the opportunity to cast a ballot for or against the Madeira school tax levy, the Mariemont stop sign ordinance, or the charter amendment in Evendale that changes the title of "administrative assistant" to "director of administrative services."

But you still might wonder about the numbering of the issues on your ballot, and how each issue got that number and its order on the ballot.

There's nothing haphazard about the order in which the issues are positioned on the ballot.

Statewide initiatives always get top priority and are listed first in the issues part of the ballot, said Sherry L. Poland, Director of Elections for Hamilton County for the last couple of years and an employee in the department since 2004. This year, however, there are no state issues for voters to decide, Poland pointed out.

That means that local issues would be listed first when voters scrutinize the lower portion of their ballots, depending on the voter's location and the type of issue.

In Hamilton County this November, city issues (there are eight) would be listed first, followed by village/township issues (35), school issues (seven), what are categorized as "other district issues" (two) and just one that's classified as a county issue: the 2.77-mill tax renewal to support children's services.

The order in which those five categories of issues appear on the ballot changes from one election to the next, Poland said. For the next election, county issues will move from the bottom of the list -- fifth position -- to the top, while all of the other categories are bumped down a notch, she said. City issues, for example, which are first this year, will move down to second position in 2017.

Once all of the issues have been approved for the ballot by the board of elections, each issue/question is assigned a number starting with the first city issue that's on the ballot. Earlier in the week, just prior to the deadline, a charter revision for the City of Blue Ash was the issue that would be assigned the number one (1).

At the other end of the issues portion of the ballot was the countywide children's services levy that would be assigned number 53 unless another issue were added to the ballot at the last minute.

"The numbers are assigned to make sure that each issue or question has a unique issue number" throughout the county, Poland said. Without that consistent number, the parks levy, for example, could have one number in Cincinnati and a different number in Norwood.

And having a variety of numbers for one issue could cause headaches.

Inside of each category of issues, the order is determined alphabetically. Blue Ash is first among the city issues while Wyoming comes in last. Addyston leads off in the village/township category and seven Springfield Township issues relating to the sales of wine, beer and liquor are the final seven entries in that category, Poland said.

The order for which the Springfield Township issues appear would be determined one of two ways, she said. The issue that was submitted first for Springfield Township would be listed at the top of the issues for that township. And if, for example, all seven had been submitted at the same time, they would be placed on the ballot based on which one had been adopted first by the township.

While some supporters of tax levies can make strategic decisions about when they want to present an issue to voters -- when they think the time is right -- the Hamilton County Job and Family Services department doesn't have that latitude. Every five years the department is required to let voters decide about a tax to support children's services, said Brian Gregg, chief communications officer for the department.

Besides children's services, the only other issue that will be decided countywide is a 1-mill levy that will be earmarked for improvements for the Great Parks of Hamilton County, Poland said.

Although the numbering system might appear to be rather confusing, Poland said, she doesn't recall any complaints about the system that Hamilton County employs.

"I don't think it has as much to do with the numbers as it does with where it is on the ballot," Poland said. "Sometimes voters don't complete the ballot and some campaigns say they like to be closer to the top of the ballot."

But she stressed that her comment was based on anecdotal observations, not on a detailed study of what issues pass and where they're listed on a ballot.

"Some people talk about voter fatigue and that they don't pay attention (to the entire ballot)," Poland said. "But I don't know how true that is. I hear different things."

Jeff Groob, a partner in November Strategies, a political consulting and campaign management firm in Covington, is convinced that ballot position is always important, especially for candidates.

"Ballot position is very important, and performance correlates strongly. The closer to the top of the ballot, the better off you are," Groob said. "That's why drawing ballot positions is so important. For example, if 35 people are running for eight slots on the Covington commission, it's almost a lock that the top eight candidates on the ballot will get in. It's especially important in races and on ballots where there is no party identification."

Because of the intense interest in the presidential race this year, it may be difficult for any issue to generate much attention, Groob said.

"Generally speaking, ballot issues are more successful in off-year elections, when voters tend to be more informed and it is easier to target your supporters. It's much tougher in a presidential year, because you get a lot of voters who only vote every four years. They show up to vote for the top of the ticket and then almost in passing cast a vote for or against the rest of the ballot without a lot of background information," he said.