The Modern Policy Institute


How to Run for Municipal Office in Ohio

by | Dec 22, 2020 | How To

Thinking about running for office in your village or city? That’s great! If you don’t know where to start, we’re here to help. Note that this guide is not comprehensive and you should consult with legal experts or the Ohio Revised Code directly if you intend to run. This guide will prepare you for what’s to come.

Background Information

Ohio is a “home rule” state, which means that while the State Constitution lays out a template for local governance, municipalities can draft a charter to create a unique government structure. In theory this means that local governance could take on practically any form imaginable. In practice, Ohio Revised Code has limited the options available and court precedent has asserted that home rule does not allow local governance to conflict with state law.

What does this mean for candidates? It means that the processes, requirements, and even positions can vary depending on where you live. For example, when running for municipal office such as council member or mayor, state law requires fifty signatures for major party candidates, 25 signatures for minor party candidates, and a number equal to 1% of the vote in the previous gubernatorial race for independent candidates (that sounds shockingly unfair because it is). However, in the City of Dayton, a charter exists that requires any candidate to obtain 500 signatures.

Step 1: Determine Local Requirements

If you live in a county with a competent board of elections, you should be able to just go to their website and all of the information for every office in the county will be provided for you. It’s very unlikely that you will be so lucky. Most counties in Ohio have a board of elections website that looks like it’s full of information, but then the majority of links on the site just direct you to the Secretary of State’s website. Specifically, if you’re looking to run for office, you will be directed to the Candidate Requirement Guide. If your village or city has not adopted a home-rule charter then you can use that guide.

Determining whether your municipality has adopted a home-rule charter is usually easy. If you go to the website for your local government, there is usually a section that outlines the form of government and the elected positions in that government. Usually it will link to the charter and ordinances. However, if your municipality website is an embarrassing artifact from the 90s, such as Governor Mike DeWine’s hometown of Cedarville, then you will find no such information. In this case, your best bet is to visit the local library and ask to see the municipal code and see if there is a charter. Another option—especially if you live in a place too small for a library or if the library lacks the information you need—is to file a public records request. In the 21st century, that shouldn’t be necessary to obtain basic information such as local laws, but unfortunately it is.

Once you have obtained a copy of your municipal charter, it should contain all of the information you need. The language of these charters is usually pretty straightforward and it should be easy to determine what the requirements are.

Step 2: Select a Treasurer and other Campaign Participants

Your campaign will need a treasurer. Make sure this is a person you trust who is at least somewhat familiar with bookkeeping. The treasurer will have to sign documents and, if necessary, fill out your campaign finance reports. Candidates often enlist friends as their treasurers, but we advise against family members. If you have a complicated financial situation your treasurer can appoint deputy treasurers. Should this be the case

When it comes time to collect signatures, you may want to have some circulators, as well. Try to form a large coalition of support. Believe it or not, people will vote for you just because they know somebody who knows you.

Step 3: Collect Signatures

As far as we know, running for municipal office anywhere in Ohio requires the collection of signatures. If your municipality does not have a charter, you can find the necessary template petition on the Secretary of State’s website here. If your municipality does have a charter, read it carefully to make sure your petition meets all of the requirements. Some charters, such as Dayton’s, provide a template petition within the charter itself.

By default, municipalities hold nonpartisan elections. There are notable exceptions to this aside from the existence of a charter, so you need to be sure of this before you begin collecting signatures. Most people know this already because, as a voter, you see it on the ballot. Partisan elections are notable for two reasons: 1) they have partisan primaries, meaning one person from each party advances past the primary to the general election and 2) unless your municipal charter states otherwise, in partisan elections your signatures must come from members of your party. This second point is extremely important because in Ohio you only become registered with a party by voting in a partisan primary. Voters who only participate in general elections are technically unaffiliated even if they always vote for one party and self-identify as a party member. Coupled with the onerous requirements for independent candidates, this system is specifically designed to exclude outsider candidates.

When collecting signatures, you also need to collect many more than the required minimum. The local board of elections uses handwriting analysis to determine whether signatures are valid. Handwriting analysis is imprecise and allows the board of elections to arbitrarily reject signatures. If this happens, you can track down the rejected signatures and have the person sign a statement affirming it is theirs coupled with a public notary. That is difficult, if not impossible to do. Signatures can also get rejected for other technical reasons such as an illegible addresses.

If you live in a small municipality with a small number of required signatures, you may just canvass your neighborhood to collect signatures. If you live in a larger city that has a large number of signature requirements—especially if you’re running as an independent—you may need to ask your local board of elections for maps and voter lists. These should be available on the county board of elections website, but often they are not. If you need to collect a high volume of signatures, it would help to enlist volunteers to help with this process. Make sure they are well-versed on the requirements and that all petition forms are correctly filled out. This includes such formalities as, whether the circulator signs the petition before or after collecting the signatures.

Step 4: File with the Board of Elections

When you have collected the necessary signatures, submit them to the local Board of Elections. It is best to do this as early as possible just in case you will need to collect more signatures or get existing ones notarized.

Step 5: Campaign Finance

If you collect less than $1,000 in donations and spend less than $1,000 on your campaign you can skip this step.

Make sure that all donations and expenses by your campaign are documented. If you are planning any fundraising events, make sure your treasurer is directly involved when spending money and when any money is collected from individuals. From some campaign events, such as a pancake breakfast, all the donations can be tallied as a single lump sum. Consult the Ohio Revised Code to ensure that all matters of campaign finance are being adhered to.

Campaign finance reports are due to the board of elections on the following dates:

  1.  twelfth day before the election
  2. thirty-eighth day after the election
  3. last business day of January of every year
  4. last business day of July of every year

Step 6: Evangelize Your Platform

Perhaps the most difficult part of running for office is convincing people to vote for you. [David…]

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