Charles Earl is trying to run for governor of Ohio. A native of Bowling Green, the one-time Republican state representative now represents the Libertarian Party of Ohio (LPO). As the LPO's gubernatorial candidate, Earl would challenge current Republican Gov. John Kasich and Democrat Ed Fitzgerald come November 2014, possibly siphoning off dissatisfied Ohio voters from Kasich. But Earl's candidacy is currently in limbo.
Last week, Earl received a letter from Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted disqualifying him from the May primary ballot. Earl was disqualified on the grounds that those circulating petitions for his inclusion weren't Libertarian Party members and/or failed to disclose themselves as paid LPO employees.
Ohio requires candidate petitions to be circulated by members of the same political party as the candidate (with party affiliation determined by how one voted in recent primaries—if a dues-paying member of the LPO voted for Republican Ron Paul in the 2012 presidential primary, for instance, he or she can't circulate or sign petitions for libertarian candidates) or by someone unaffiliated with any party. Several Democrats allegedly helped circulate Earl's petitions.
A biggest number of Earl's signatures were collected by Oscar C. Hatchett Jr., a "professional petitioner" paid by the signature. There's nothing illegal about that: Paying people to collect signatures is just fine. But under Ohio law, petitioners to list, among other things, their "employer." The secretary of state alleges that Hatchett failed to list the LPO as his employer on this form.
But was the LPO his employer? Hatchett and the party say no. The LPO is now challenging Husted's ruling in federal court, partially on the grounds that petitioners were independent contractors who couldn't reasonably be expected to consider the LPO their employer.
The LPO alleges that the petition circulator employer rules are selectively enforced by the secretary of state's office. Hatchett told a federal court last week that he's been collecting signatures professionally for 12 years, never listed his employer, and never had his signatures challenged before. A spokesman for Husted's office said the rule was only enforced when a petition was challenged.
So about that challenge: The LPO claims it's the Ohio Republican Party deliberately trying to keep Earl off the ballot. Libertarian paranoia? Not entirely.
Last week, Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges said that the state GOP was involved in initiating a challenge to Earl's petition. This week, however, Borges backtracked. He told the U.S. District Court in Columbus on Monday that he had been under stress and misspoken previously.
The man who actually challenged Earl's petition is Gregory Felsoci, a resident of Rocky River, Ohio, and a member of the Libertarian Party. Why would Felsoci fight to keep his own party's candidates off the ballot? No one is quite sure…including, possibly, Felsoci.
Aaron K. Harris, communications director of the LPO, says that Felsoci's Thursday testimony to the District Court was "sketchy" and vague. "I've never seen a witness as clueless as this guy. He didn't even know that he'd filed a protest," says Harris.
According to Harris' account of Felsoci's testimony (which isn't available online), a friend of Felsoci's had shown him a printout he'd picked up at a coffee shop about how the Democrats were collecting signatures for Libertarian candidates. The friend, John Musca, allegedly said Felsoci should do something about it since he was a registered Libertarian and could; Felsoci agreed. A lawyer from Zeigger, Tigges and Little contacted Felsoci the next day.
"Falsoci didn't actively seek this," says Harris, adding that Felsoci seemed to believe he was signing a petition, not filing a protest to one. "We're assuming some Republican candidate or the party itself asked [the law firm] to do this." He thinks Borges lied under oath.
The actual level of involvement here from the Ohio Republican and Democratic parties is still unclear. But it seems probable there was some involvement. And ultimately the LPO is getting played. The state's major parties are willing to use Libertarians when politically convenient, and dismiss (or dismantle) their candidacies when they could cost votes. Perverting democracy for partisan gain seems to have become standard practice in the state.
In November 2013, congressional Republicans passed a bill that would have made it even harder for third parties to get on Ohio ballots. The LPO sued. In January 2014, Federal District Judge Michael H. Watson issued an injunction blocking the new rules for ballot access.
Judge Watson also heard the LPO's case this time around. He expects to have a ruling by the end of this week. Harris says he's "optimistic" about the decision.