Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Ohio Senate passes GOP-backed campaign finance proposal on foreign money

Sens. Rob McColley (R-Napoleon) and Theresa Gavarone (R-Bowling Green) introduce Senate Bill 215 in January, 2024.
Sarah Donaldson
Statehouse News Bureau
Sens. Rob McColley (R-Napoleon) and Theresa Gavarone (R-Bowling Green) introduce Senate Bill 215 in January, 2024.

The Ohio Senate voted 25-7, along party lines, on Wednesday to advance a fast-tracked dark money proposal that bans foreign contributions to campaigns for and against ballot issues in the state.

Senate Bill 215, introduced by Sens. Rob McColley (R-Napoleon) and Theresa Gavarone (R-Bowling Green) in January, had its first committee hearing only last Wednesday. Its introduction came two weeks after Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, asked for “immediate action” on the issue in a letter to legislative leaders.

SB 215’s backers have said it creates consistency in state law. Ohio candidates are not allowed to take money from foreign nationals and haven’t been since 2000, according to McColley and Gavarone, but that ban doesn’t exist for ballot issues.

The state defines foreign nationals as individual non-U.S. citizens or permanent residents, governments of foreign countries, and foreign political parties. An earlier version of the bill would have added lawful permanent residents—or green-card holders—to the list of individuals prohibited from making contributions.

“We don’t often have issues this black-and-white before us,” Gavarone said on the floor Wednesday.

But members of the Democratic caucus, including Senate Minority Leader Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood), argued SB 215 didn't really tackle dark money. Antonio said she felt the bill was instead a result of the recent success of citizen-initiated ballot issues.

“This really seems like a sore loser bill,” Antonio said on the floor.

It comes on the heels of Ohio voters' passage of a November constitutional amendment enshrining the right to an abortion. As the bill has moved, proponents have pointed to the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a liberal dark money nonprofit that poured money into the campaign for Issue 1.

SB 215 cleared the general government committee earlier Wednesday morning.

Before that vote, Sen. Bill DeMora (D-Columbus), the lone Democrat on the committee, introduced two amendments. One would have appropriated $500,000 for the Ohio Elections Commission to hire additional lawyers for related investigations, and another would have removed a provision that requires ballot circulating committees to register as a political action committee (PAC). Committee members voted to table both.

DeMora said he's concerned SB 215 could have unintended consequences, where even Ohioans putting together petitions for local liquor sales would have to register as a PAC.

“What this actually does is stifle the voice of Ohioans,” DeMora said on the floor.

McColley, however, said DeMora's criticisms were overblown.

“At the end of the day, this is a straightforward question, as has been detailed by Sen. Gavarone. Are you against foreign influence in our elections? No matter what side it's on, no matter where it's coming from,” McColley said on the floor.

Four national conservative organizations submitted proponent testimony between last Wednesday and Tuesday, with no public opponents so far. SB 215 now heads to the Ohio House.

Sarah Donaldson covers government, policy, politics and elections for the Ohio Public Radio and Television Statehouse News Bureau. Contact her at