Commentary: Can Ozie Davis Beat The Odds As A Write-in Candidate?

Aug 28, 2019

In politics, it's not often that a candidate instantly goes from being a near shoo-in on the ballot to a write-in candidate who must convince thousands of people to take the time to write in his name.  

But Cincinnati Board of Education member Ozie Davis – a Democrat endorsed by the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers (CFT) - has managed to do just that.

It's what happens when you turn in nominating petitions to run for office and you come up short on the number of valid signatures of registered voters you need.

He has a steep hill to climb to win a seat on the school board without his name on the ballot. But he will have some significant help from the CFT and the Cincinnati Democratic Committee, which endorsed him months ago.

Davis turned in petitions with 428 signatures.

He needed 300 of them to be the signatures of registered voters in the school district.

Only 253 were good.

So, the Hamilton County Board of Elections on Monday had no choice but to tell the long-time Avondale community organizer that he couldn't be on the ballot. He almost immediately filed paperwork to be a write-in candidate.

You must register as a write-in candidate before any votes cast for you will be counted. For example, you could write my name in (which I would not advise for a multitude of reasons), but the board of elections wouldn't count the vote, because I have no intention of filing the write-in paperwork.

Davis told WVXU is he "not interested in telling all the back story on how this happened," but it is clear that someone on his campaign staff messed up big time.

At any rate, Davis takes the blame.

"I own this,'' Davis told WVXU. "I take personal responsibility. Three-hundred signatures shouldn't be that hard to do."

No, it shouldn't.

Eight other school board candidates managed to get their 300 valid signatures with no apparent problems.

In fact, Davis, when running for Cincinnati City Council in 2017, had to collect even more valid signatures – 500 – to become one of a field of 24 candidates where the top nine finishers won council seats.

Davis did OK for his first time out as a candidate, finishing 11th.

In May 2018, when school board member Lannis Timmons suddenly resigned, the six remaining school board members chose Davis out of seven applicants to fill out Timmons' term.

Now, Davis says, although he realizes he has "a tough hill to climb," that he can still win as a write-in.

But there is nothing easy about convincing voters to vote for someone who is not on the ballot by marking the box that says Write-in and writing "Ozie Davis" on the line.

Look at 2014, the last time there was a significant write-in campaign in Hamilton County.

Then-county commissioner Chris Monzel was up for re-election. A nearly complete unknown named Sean Patrick Feeney won the primary in a weak Democratic field to take on Monzel.

Well, Monzel and then-commissioner Greg Hartmann had stirred a lot of anger among Democrats and some of their fellow Republicans by voting for a quarter-cent sales tax hike that would fund improvements at Union Terminal but not for Music Hall.

One of those who was hot over excluding Music Hall was "Mr. Cincinnati," former council member Jim Tarbell, who decided to file as a write-in candidate. The Democratic Party couldn't help Tarbell, because Feeney had won the Democratic primary fair and square.

Monzel was re-elected with 57 percent of the vote; Feeney had 36 percent. Tarbell – much more of a household name in Cincinnati than Ozie Davis – took only 6.6 percent as a write-in candidate.

Now, Davis has one advantage that Tarbell didn't have.

Davis' name will be on the Democratic sample ballot that will be handed out at polling places, particularly in heavily Democratic precincts. The sample ballot will list all the endorsed candidates and have a special section on Davis, with instructions for the voters on how to cast a write-in ballot.

"We will not renege on our endorsement of Ozie,'' said Gwen McFarlin, chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party. "We are going to educate the voters.

"This is not something we saw coming and there are some lessons to be learned from this experience,'' McFarlin said. "We are just going to ride out the storm. And, yes, I believe Ozie can be elected."  

Democratic voters, McFarlin said, "are very disciplined and they know what they have to do."

Alex Triantafilou, the chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party, was not entirely unsympathetic to Davis' plight, saying "we've had our share of people coming up short on petitions over the years."

But he did say that when he talks to new candidates, he tells them that running a petition campaign is essential to showing you can run a campaign organization.  

"The first test of a candidate's strength is going out and gathering signatures," Triantafilou said. "If you want to be in charge of a $1 billion organization like Cincinnati Public Schools that desperately needs help, you ought to be able to go out and get 300 valid signatures."

Davis thinks he is going to need somewhere in the neighborhood of 25,000 votes to win a seat as a write-in candidate.

Maybe he can.

And maybe he is going to first have to convince a whole lot of people that a candidate who can't get his nominating petitions right is the person they want to help run their public schools.

Especially if they don't see his name on the ballot. Which they won't.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

  Read more "Politically Speaking" here.