COLUMBUS, OH - NOVEMBER 6: Voting stickers lay on a table at the Kings Art Center November 6, 2012 in Columbus, Ohio. Recent polls show U.S. President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are locked in a tight race. (Photo by Jay LaPrete/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 155697219
When compared to national races, especially the 2020 presidential race, county elections can seem a little, well, inconsequential. However, local governments arguably have more influence over our day-to-day lives than other levels of government and hold primary authority over a number of important issues facing Americans.
Below is a brief voter guide to inform you about what Summit County offices will appear on your November 2020 General Election Ballot and what role each position plays. These are not comprehensive reviews, but a simple summary of responsibilities to help you better evaluate the candidates.
County Council: The County Council consists of 11 elected members: Eight representing geographic districts and three “at-large,” or county-wide, seats. Only the district seats are on the 2020 ballot, meaning Summit County residents in each district will vote for one council member.
The council acts similarly to a city council and holds all legislative and policy-making authority within the county government. Each council member serves a four-year term and serves on a number of committees pertaining to county issues.
Most other counties in Ohio have three commissioners instead of councils.
Summit County Executive Roles
The officials in these positions don’t set policy but are more like administrators, overseeing career professional staff and ensuring the quality of their office’s work. County offices are governed by ordinances set by the County Council and the federal and state governments. However, like all administrators, they have leeway in implementing their authority. This leeway can have a huge impact on local priorities and on how laws are enacted.
All six executive positions are on the November ballot and each will each serve a four-year term.
County Executive: The County Executive acts as the CEO of Summit County. The office oversees a wide range of county programs, from animal control to emergency planning to job and family services. Basically, all responsibility not delegated to the positions below falls to the County Executive.
The County Executive can also veto legislation passed by the County Council.
County Fiscal Officer: Think of this person as the CFO of Summit County. This office is responsible for collecting county taxes, managing the county’s payroll, appraising properties, maintaining property records, and issuing dog licenses, among other responsibilities. They also manage the county’s investment portfolio.
County Engineer: The County Engineer is responsible for overseeing the infrastructure of Summit County, especially the roads. Basically, their jurisdiction is anywhere outside of incorporated cities and towns, though there are exceptions. The engineer oversees common tasks like filling potholes and plowing snow, along with highway design, bridge maintenance and stormwater management.
While the Summit County Engineer does aid in the mission of other engineering offices, it should be noted that Akron and many other cities have their own offices with unique responsibilities.
County Sheriff: The sheriff is responsible for everything from deploying Summit County’s mounted patrol to ensuring mental health services for inmates at Summit County Jail. In fact, overseeing all aspects of Summit County Jail operations is one the office’s most important roles. The sheriff’s department also acts as the police force in unincorporated communities as well as cities that sign special contracts for law enforcement, including Green.
The sheriff is also responsible for court security; training for multiple departments; managing county dispatch operations; issuing concealed carry permits; overseeing the bomb squad; policing maritime areas, including on the Portage Lakes; and managing the county drug unit. The sheriff’s department also manages the sale of foreclosed properties.
The Clerk of Courts: The Clerk of Courts is responsible for everything the court does that is not directly related to trying cases. That includes maintaining files of cases, fee collection, vehicle titles and boat titles. You can even get a passport from the Clerk of Court’s office. The Clerk of Courts is typically seen as the person responsible for efficiency, customer service, innovation and staff morale among non-judicial staff at the court.
County Prosecutor: The County Prosecutor is responsible for prosecuting those who have been charged with a felony within Summit County, whether via arrest or indictment. The importance of this position has gained attention in recent years because of the prosecutor’s discretion in determining what charges are pursued and whether and how defendants are offered plea deals.
The office also oversees support for crime victims during trials. It provides civil legal advice to local governments; represents the county if it is sued, provides support to neglected and abused children; enforces child support orders and reviews the use of deadly force by police.
Summit County Judges
The election of judges is a key difference between local and federal governments. At the federal level, they’re appointed for life. In Ohio courts, they’re elected. This means it is up to the citizens of Summit County to ask, “What makes a good judge?”
This process is highly subjective. Judges are required to have spent at least six years as lawyers before running. Although judges will say they can only campaign on their personal qualities, this is not technically true. What they are not allowed to do is to make promises, pre-judge a case or indicate how they will rule in a specific kind of case.
Voting based on political affiliation can be tricky because of the judicial system’s non-partisan nature. While judges run in their party’s primaries, they are not listed by party on the November general election ballots.
To evaluate judicial candidates, voters can review a judge’s past experience, current performance (if they are running for reelection), and their response to new approaches like recovery courts and other special court dockets. It is also important to gauge their understanding of the issues faced by the court they are hoping to serve, their knowledge of laws they will be ruling on and whether they will approach their position with your desired combination of sternness and empathy.
On the 2020 general election ballot there are nine local judgeships. Those elected will serve six-year terms. There are six Common Pleas General Division positions on the ballot and one position open in each remaining division.
The Ninth District Court of Appeals covers other counties in addition to Summit, so voters in multiple counties elect its judges.
The Summit County Court of Common Pleas – General Division: The General Division takes both civil and criminal cases, including civil lawsuits, felony crimes, alternative dispute resolutions and foreclosures. The General Division also has seven “problem-solving courts,” referred to as specialty dockets, that focus on groups like veterans and people recovering from addiction. Ten judges serve under the General Division, with six seats determined by the 2020 election.
The Summit County Court of Common Pleas – Domestic Relations: The Domestic Relations Division has authority over domestic violence cases, child support cases and parental issues like custody or visitation. The Domestic Relations court also has exclusive jurisdiction ending marriages through dissolution or divorce.
The Summit County Court of Common Pleas – Juvenile: The Juvenile court deals with cases involving people younger than 18. That includes minors who have been charged with crimes, abuse and neglect cases, and custody cases involving people who are not a child’s biological parents. People convicted in juvenile court may enter the juvenile detention system.
The Summit County Court of Common Pleas – Probate: The Probate Court oversees wills and estates, guardianships, trusts, involuntary mental health commitments, adoptions, name changes and marriage licenses.
Judge of the Court of Appeals (9th District): The 9th District Court of Appeals reviews decisions from Akron and Summit County, as well as other cases that originate in county, municipal, and common pleas courts in Wayne, Medina and Lorain Counties. Either side of a legal case can file an appeal, and if the court of appeals agrees to hear it, the lower court’s decision can be upheld or overturned.
State Government Offices
Ohio House of Representatives and State Senate: These positions operate similarly to Congress and have similar roles. Everyone in Ohio is represented by two people in the state Legislature: a state representative and a state senator.
There are 99 Ohio House districts and 33 Ohio Senate districts. House members serve two-year terms before facing re-election; senators serve four-year terms. Officials can only serve for eight consecutive years in each chamber.
For Akron, all Ohio House of Representatives seats are up for a vote in November. However, only Senate District 28, which covers most of Akron and southern Summit County, will be on the ballot.
Ohio Supreme Court: The Ohio Supreme Court acts as the court of last resort for the State of Ohio. This means that it has final authority in cases involving state laws and has the ability to intervene in certain cases in lower courts, including both municipal and county courts. The Supreme Court also has the authority to set rules that govern becoming — and remaining — a lawyer in Ohio.
The court consists of seven justices, including a chief justice, who each serve a six-year term.
Like county judges, these candidates are selected in party primaries but run as nonpartisan candidates with no party by their name in the November General Election ballot. However, candidates can be backed by a political party. Currently, there are two judges backed by the Democratic Party on the court and five backed by the Republican Party. Two of the seven justices are up for reelection in November, making this a “supremely” important race for both of Ohio’s major political parties.