How to Run for Local Office in Ohio: The Ultimate Guide
The issues that typically dominate local politics in Ohio are familiar to families and working people everywhere. The Dayton Daily News quotes a project manager for a recent Your Voice Ohio forum as saying people are concerned about “basic needs: food, shelter, transportation, safety,” especially in industrial areas of the state.
Across Ohio, citizens are responding to the concerns of their neighbors and communities by stepping forward to run for local political offices. The political campaigns for municipal and county offices largely focus on the bread-and-butter issues: keeping citizens safe, taking care of the needy in the community, making sure local services are run effectively and efficiently, creating a vibrant environment for local businesses, and working to ensure a bright future for children.
Even experienced politicians who are beginning their campaigns can feel uncertain about how to run for a local office in Ohio. As this guide will show, running for a local political office is not as daunting as it may initially appear. Once candidates understand the state-mandated requirements and learn the steps in the campaign process, they can focus on demonstrating the knowledge, compassion, and leadership skills to qualify for and win a local election.
Types of Local Political Offices
A potential candidate for local political office in Ohio must first choose which elected office to campaign for. Often, a candidate has a specific office in mind and has prepared for that position by studying its duties and developing the required skills. Other times, a candidate begins the process of running for local office without a particular position in mind but with a strong desire to serve the public.
Described below are the types of elected offices in local Ohio government, details about the positions, and information needed to make a run for the office. Note that these elected roles vary depending on the city, county, township, and village.
Running for mayor of Cleveland, Cincinnati, or Columbus might appear to have little in common with running for mayor of smaller locations such as Beavercreek, Elyria, or Cuyahoga Falls. Yet the offices share many characteristics despite the size discrepancies of the cities. By Ohio state law, mayors serve four-year terms that begin on January 1 following the election. According to Ohio Revised Code Chapter 733, mayors are empowered to appoint directors of public safety and service, as well as directors of any subsidiary departments.
Ohio law defines a city as a municipality that either has 5,000 or more registered voters at the time of the last election, or 5,000 or more residents as of the most recent federal census. Other incorporated municipalities in Ohio are designated as villages. Mayors in Ohio villages serve as the president of the village’s legislative authority and have the power to vote only to break a tie.
To qualify to run for mayor of a village, the candidate must have been a resident for at least 12 months immediately prior to the election. There is no minimum residency requirement to run for mayor of a city other than being a current resident of that city. All candidates for office in Ohio must be at least 18 years old as of the date of the election, and they must be registered to vote in the city or village in which they are running.
Ohio law stipulates that each county’s board of commissioners will be composed of three elected officials who serve four-year terms. The boards must begin to meet no later than the second Monday of January each year and must conduct at least 50 regular meetings each year. Meetings must be held on a regular schedule that is fixed in advance. Each board elects a president and is empowered by Ohio Revised Code Chapter 305 to “transact such business as it considers necessary or is required by law.”
Whether during regular or special meetings, the board of commissioners may enter into contracts for the construction and maintenance of public buildings and bridges, improvements to and management of public grounds, and the hiring and management of maintenance employees. They are also charged with ensuring the “maintenance or support of persons with developmental disabilities or of the mentally ill,” as well as “any other official act not, by law, restricted to a particular regular session.”
Many municipalities in Ohio do not elect mayors or select a mayor from among city council members. Instead, the city council is empowered to hire a city manager. The city manager answers to the council and is charged with administering the municipality’s civic programs and projects, as the Ohio City/County Management Association explains. The city manager prepares a budget that is recommended to the council, hires and manages city workers, advises the council, and enacts the council’s policies.
City managers who are members of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) are prohibited from supporting members of the “employing legislative body, and from all partisan political activities which would impair performance as a professional administrator.” The ICMA Code of Ethics includes 12 principles that govern the personal and professional conduct of city managers. One such principle calls for “total dedication to the cause of good government” as well as adhering to “standards of honesty and integrity more vigorous than those required by law.”
City Council Member
The Ohio Revised Code Chapter 731 stipulates that cities must vest their legislative power in a legislative authority. The authority must be composed of at least seven members, four of whom are elected from wards, and three of whom are elected by citywide vote — all for four-year terms. The minimum number of council members increases based on the city’s population; variations from this requirement are available after the approval of the alternative plan by the city’s voters.
Candidates for the city’s legislative authority must have resided in the city (and ward, for ward elections) for at least one year immediately prior to the election. They may not hold any other public office except as a notary or state militia member. The power of the legislative authority governs legislative duties only, not administrative operations of the city.
Village legislative authorities must have six members, although the number may be reduced to five by vote of the village electorate or by initiative petition. Each member is elected to a four-year term. Residency and public-office restrictions are the same as for city councils.
Each of Ohio’s townships is managed by a board of township trustees. This board is composed of three members and a clerk, or “fiscal officer,” as the Ohio Township Association explains. To qualify for “limited home rule government” under the Ohio Revised Code Chapter 504, a township must have at least 2,500 residents; townships with more than 15,000 residents are called “urban townships.” (Townships differ from cities and villages in that they are not incorporated municipalities.) Some townships also appoint a township administrator whose role is to assist the township in planning and implementing its civic goals. Trustees are elected to four-year terms and typically serve on a part-time basis.
The Ohio Revised Code Chapter 504 explains the duties of township trustees, which include adopting and enforcing regulations that govern local police, sanitation, and other areas of public service that do not conflict with state law. Trustees cannot enact any taxes that aren’t authorized by state law. The township administrator works under the direction of the board of trustees and is charged with managing and enforcing the board’s policies and resolutions.
Township fiscal officers are charged with keeping a record of all board activities including meetings, accounts, and transactions. The fiscal officer must attend in person at least one meeting of the board of trustees each quarter “unless prevented by the occurrence of an emergency,” according to the Ohio Revised Code Chapter 507.
School Board Member
One of the largest categories of elected officials in Ohio is school board members, according to the Ohio School Boards Association. School board members are responsible for setting educational goals and school policies. The school board hires the school district’s superintendent and treasurer. It also makes them accountable for implementing policy and achieving the district’s goals.
School board members must know the law pertaining to school district operations and be familiar with all school policies. Most importantly, school board members must be committed to providing the community’s children with the best education available within the financial means of the district.
Additional Elected Positions
Other local elected offices in Ohio include the following:
- Countywide elected offices are commissioner, coroner, engineer, prosecuting attorney, recorder, treasurer, and sheriff — all of which have four-year terms, according to the Ohio Secretary of State Candidate Requirement Guide 2020. Candidates for coroner must be licensed physicians, while prosecuting attorneys must be licensed to practice law in Ohio. Sheriffs must meet several requirements, as stipulated in the Ohio Revised Code Chapter 311.
- Local judicial offices require that candidates be registered electors in the county. These offices include court of common pleas judge and county court judge, both of which are six-year terms; and clerk of the courts (a four-year term).
Getting Ready to Run for Local Office in Ohio
Preparing to be a candidate for a local political office begins by mapping out a comprehensive campaign strategy. Key benchmarks involve meeting the requirements to qualify for the ballot, as well as securing adequate campaign funding. (Note that the specific campaign requirements vary by position and geographic area.)
Signatures and Registration Requirements
Chapter 3513 of the Ohio Revised Code describes the candidate filing and nominating requirements for state and local offices. For example, to run for a seat on a board of education, candidates must file a petition with the county board of elections by 4 p.m. on the 90th day before the November general election.
Candidates for township offices must complete a nominating petition signed by 25 township residents. The exception is when a majority of township residents have petitioned for a township election, as the Ohio Township Association explains. The nominating petition must be filed with the county board of elections at least 90 days prior to the election.
In addition to filing a petition with the county board of elections, candidates for mayor must file a Designation of Treasurer form with the elections board prior to spending money on the campaign other than for filing fees, and before accepting any campaign contributions. Candidates for mayor of a city must also file a Personal Financial Disclosure Statement with the Ohio Ethics Commission. The requirement that candidates file campaign finance reports may be waived if candidates meet specific qualifications:
- The salary the mayor receives is less than $5,000
- Total campaign contributions are less than $2,000
- No donor contributed more than $100
- Total campaign spending was less than $2,000
Candidates seeking countywide offices, such as commissioner, sheriff, recorder, or treasurer, must file State Form 2-G if they are seeking the nomination of a political party, or State Form 3-H if they are not affiliated with a political party. Major party candidates must submit petitions with at least 50 signatures of registered voters, minor party candidates must submit 25 signatures, and independent candidates must submit a number of signatures that is determined by the number of votes cast in the county in the most recent gubernatorial election.
The Ohio Revised Code Chapter 3513 lists the filing fees for all political offices in the state. Filing fees for a candidate’s petition range from $30 for school board members (as of May 2018) to $80 for countywide offices. The fee for filing a financial disclosure statement is $60 for county offices; $35 for city offices; and $30 for school board members, superintendents, treasurers, and business managers, according to the Ohio Ethics Commission.
The Ohio Board of Professional Conduct explains the rules that apply to candidates for judicial offices in the state, including the solicitation of campaign contributions, the judicial candidate seminar and handbook, and all judicial campaign conduct and finance rules.
The Ohio Revised Code Chapter 111 describes the rules governing campaign finance. The requirements for political parties, campaign committees, campaign contributions and expenditures, and political advertising are specified in Chapter 3517 of the Ohio Revised Code. Also, the Ohio Secretary of State’s Campaign Finance page has links to information about filing forms and reports, contribution limits, deadlines, and other laws and regulations that apply to local political campaigns in the state. In particular, the office’s Campaign Finance Handbook describes the reporting regulations that apply to specific local political offices.
Additional Tips and Resources for Running for Office in Ohio
Before you start to make concrete plans for a campaign, you must determine which political roles match your skills and interests. You must also think about the platform of issues you will run on, and how to win over the electorate to your ideas for making your community better.
Choose an Office That Is Suited to Your Skills
One of the biggest mistakes political candidates make is choosing to run for a specific office because they believe it will make them powerful and prestigious. As Political Resources Online points out, campaigning for office is “one of the hardest endeavors you’ll ever undertake.” For many local offices, the pay is minimal, and you’ll spend nearly all of your time in meetings where you do much more listening — to constituents, public officials, and various experts and special interests — than you do talking.
Whichever office you choose to run for must be a good match for your abilities, because there won’t be much time for on-the-job training.
Develop a Strong Candidate Platform
Successful campaigns begin by clearly formulating the issues that will define the run for office. “Defining your mission” is the first step in Candidate Boot Camp’s guide to creating a political campaign strategy. Keep in mind how much you’ll need to motivate the voters with whom your message is most likely to resonate. Determine whether it will be a single-issue campaign, whether you’ll need to gain the support of specific segments of the electorate, and how to ensure your message is delivered clearly and consistently to the voters it is meant to reach.
Strategize on How You Can Improve Your Community
The best political leaders listen carefully. They appreciate the importance of hearing what people in the community have to say about matters of public concern and how well their public officials are addressing those concerns. Door-to-door canvassing, telephone calling, and attending community events are popular methods for soliciting thoughts and ideas from voters while also sharing your vision as a candidate.
Once you’ve determined the issues on which your campaign will turn, the next step is to investigate the many ways in which you can communicate your message. Beyond having a campaign website, social media and other digital outlets should be used. The more effort you’re able to make in reaching out to voters as directly as possible with a strong message, the better the results your campaign will likely achieve on election day.
Make a Positive Difference
Running for local political office is not for the faint of heart. It requires a commitment of time, money, and effort that many people find daunting. Yet seeking public office gives you the opportunity to make a meaningful and positive impact on your neighbors and your community.