Petitioners can be spotted around campus asking students for signatures in opposition to a referendum effort. Credit: Owen Milnes | For the Lantern

Following students wearing headphones down 18th Avenue, cornering them at Thompson Library and ambushing them while eating at the Ohio Union are all tactics aggressive petitioners who swarmed campus have used on students in the last several weeks in an attempt to prevent a referendum on a nuclear bailout from being put on the ballot.

House Bill 6, signed into law July 23, will provide a subgroup of Akron-based energy provider First Energy Corporation called First Energy Solutions with around $1 billion over seven years to keep two nuclear power plants in Northern Ohio from shutting their doors. Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts — a political action group opposed to HB 6 — began gathering signatures to put a referendum on the 2020 ballot that would repeal the law. In response, a campaign against the referendum includes a petition and especially assertive on-campus petitioners from political group Ohioans for Energy Security that asks state lawmakers to prevent foreign ownership of Ohio power plants.

Gene Pierce, a spokesperson for Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts, said in an email that the initiative is trying to sabotage the organization’s referendum efforts.

“It’s meant to confuse people into thinking they’ve signed our petitions, and to drain the spot labor market from a vast pool of people who would otherwise be available to work for us,” Gene Pierce, a spokesperson for Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts, said in an email.

The petition against the referendum is paid for by Ohioans for Energy Security, which says that overturning HB 6 would allow China “control over Ohio” as well as give signers’ personal information to the Chinese government, according to their website and video campaigns.

“Warning! Don’t give your personal information to the Chinese Government” a banner at the top of the site reads. “China is quietly invading our Energy Grid and coming for our Ohio jobs.”

Pierce said these statements are false.

“It’s a totally bogus claim. Foreign entities can invest in American companies, but when it comes to our energy grid they can not control a part of our grid. The U.S. Dept of the Treasury’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) strictly monitors those investments,” Pierce said.

Ohioans for Energy Security could not be reached for comment by the time of publication, and two petitioners approached by The Lantern declined to comment. 

Herb Asher, professor emeritus of political science, said a nonbinding petition — which is what Ohioans for Energy Security is circulating — is just a campaign tool used to confuse potential signers and does not force any legislative action.

“In Ohio, we have a system which a lot of other states don’t. We actually give citizens the ability to petition their government and we can petition for constitutional amendments, for statutes and for the referendum, so those are the official petition things. This ‘nonbinding’ is just a silly thing,” Asher said.

Both supporters and opponents of HB 6 have aired TV ads supporting their campaigns. Supporters of HB 6 have also hired “blockers” — people hired to discourage potential signers from signing the referendum petition — to interfere with the referendum effort, according to a press release from Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost. Yost said he had received reports about the blockers’ actions, and he would not tolerate “harassment and intimidation.”

“Two different petitions are circulating statewide and their supporters have a right under law to collect signatures without interference,” Yost said of the blockers. “My job as attorney general is to call balls and strikes like I see them, and this one is a wild pitch. It’s time to knock it off.”

Pierce said one of these incidents occurred on Ohio State’s campus when a blocker struck a petitioner and that at times there have been as many as 20 blockers to one petitioner.

According to Yost’s press release, one blocker allegedly broke a man’s cellphone outside a Central Ohio library. The blocker was arrested and charged with criminal damaging. 

Asher said the use of organized blockers is unprecedented, and the attorney general’s decision to get involved was appropriate. 

If the referendum effort is able to gather 265,774 signatures from registered voters by Oct. 21, it will appear on the ballot in November 2020, according to the Ohio attorney general’s website.