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Politically Speaking is WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson's column that examines the world of politics and how it shapes the world around us.

Analysis: With Issue 2, Ohio Republicans seem to go to war with peace-loving Yellow Springs

a sign reading 'be kind' is nestled in a garden with a flower peace sign hanging on a wood fence
Yellow Springs Ohio
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A picture of Yellow Springs, Ohio, from June 2021.

Such an eclectic, laid-back and peace-loving place the village of Yellow Springs, Ohio, is.

Anyone who has ever been there would tell you so.

Peace and love. Say no to war. The eternal mantra in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

It is such an unlikely place for a political war, waged by Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose and his fellow Statehouse Republicans against the idea of people who are not U.S. citizens voting in local elections.

Now this Greene County village of 3,972 souls, about 70 miles northeast of Cincinnati, find themselves at the heart of a a GOP-backed campaign to pass Issue 2 on the November ballot, a ballot issue that would put specific language in the Ohio Constitution banning non-citizens from voting in local elections.

It's aimed squarely at Yellow Springs, which, according to the Ohio Legislative Service Commission, is the only Ohio village or municipality where the voters have said they want their non-citizens to vote in local elections.

Ohio is a home rule state, meaning that local governments can make decisions for themselves as they see fit.

That's exactly what the village of Yellow Springs did two years ago, when voters approved a village charter amendment to allow non-citizens to vote in elections for local offices.

The non-citizen population of Yellow Springs is by no means huge. The U.S. Census data from 2020 puts the number at 27.

"We weren't trying to start anything with the state; people here just believed their neighbors who are part of this community should have a say in how it is run," said Brian Housh, president of the Yellow Springs Village Council.

What Yellow Springs has done, Housh said, is the same thing 15 other municipalities in four other home rule states have done.

Housh said the Greene County Board of Elections told him they'd have no problem putting together a separate ballot on local races and issues for the non-citizen voters, but LaRose would not allow it. And he told the board of elections they can't accept voter registration forms from those Yellow Springs non-citizens.

LaRose, in a phone interview Monday, said Issue 2 is not about Yellow Springs.

"Ideas like this tend to spread over a period of time," LaRose said.

So, I suppose, the idea of Issue 2 is to nip it in the bud, as Deputy Barney Fife used to say.

LaRose said it is necessary to put a ban on non-citizens voting in local elections in the Ohio Constitution because Ohio law "is silent on that subject."

"The state law has always been clear that only U.S. citizens can vote in state elections and there is a federal law that prevents non-citizens from voting in federal elections,'' LaRose said.

One consequence of putting this prohibition in the state constitution is that it would prevent villages and municipalities from using their home rule authority in situations like that of Yellow Springs.

"It's very concerning that the state would want to take away home rule powers," Housh said. "That's an important tool for responding to the needs of our people."

Housh thinks there may be a political motivation behind Issue 2.

"It seems to me like a way for the Republicans to bait their base and get them fired up about the election," Housh said. "There's a lot of hostility towards immigrants out there."

There is polling out there that seems to back up that belief. A recent Spectrum News/Siena College poll of Ohio voters showed 59% said they would vote "yes" on Issue 2, while only 38% said they would vote "no."

LaRose bristles at the suggestion that Issue 2 is aimed at stirring up hatred of immigrants.

"They attempt to portray this as mean-spirited or anti-immigrant," LaRose said. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

The secretary of state, who is running for re-election this year, said he has been to many naturalization ceremonies for new U.S. citizens, where he said he sees "the pride and joy in their faces and in their families' faces."

Especially, he said, when the new citizens are handed a voter registration form after taking the oath.

"I have had newly sworn citizens tell me that they think that allowing non-citizens to vote is wrong; they say, 'Don't cheapen the thing I have worked so hard to get — the right to vote,' " LaRose said.

LaRose acknowledges that instances of non-citizens registering to vote and actually casting ballots are few and far between in a state with over 8 million registered voters.

Every year, the secretary of state's office uses official records to identify non-citizens who are registered to vote. They are referred to the Ohio attorney general for investigation. The most recent report from LaRose identified 11 people. Ten of them didn't actually cast a ballot.

Eleven out of more than 8 million.

Sounds as if maybe Housh and other critics of Issue 2 may be on to something — maybe this is a solution in search of a problem.

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.