Ever wonder about specific data behind results in past elections in your state, such as who funded campaigns? Or maybe you might be a little uneasy about the environmental safety and levels of toxicity around your neighborhood because of that chemical factory down the road. Well, your questions about these topics - and many more, less obscure ones - can be answered with the simple use of public records.
You have a statutory right to inspect a vast number of Ohio’s public records using the state's public records law. Unlike most states, in Ohio you do not have to reveal your identity or your intended use of the record, as an official is not permitted to deny your request on those grounds.
What Government Bodies Are Covered
You are entitled to inspect and copy records of all "public offices" under Ohio’s public records law. The term "public office" is defined broadly and includes state, county, city, village, township, and school district units.
Ohio law does not specify any exact time limits in which the agency must respond to your request; however, upon receipt of your request, the office must "promptly" prepare the records and make them available for inspection. If you have requested copies of the records, these copies shall be provided to you "within a reasonable period of time."
The public records law is unclear about the specific fees you may be charged for copies of records. Upon request, the office must make copies "at cost," which means that they cannot profit from your request. The office can charge for "the cost involved in providing the public record," and you may be required to pay the fee in advance.
What Types of Records Can Be Requested
You should be able to request any document or file that the public office has prepared or possesses, unless the records fall under an exemption. Here are some of the types of public records that you can access, and how to go about requesting them.
The Ohio Department of Health (ODH) maintains birth certificates for all births occurring in the state and also for births to Ohio residents that occurred outside the state. You can submit a request to this state department; however, local service options may be faster due to the higher volume processed in this state’s office. You can obtain birth records from the city or county health department where the event occurred. You can obtain a birth record by either submitting a request online, by mail, or via walk-in visit. The latter is the quickest method, as same day service is available in the downtown Columbus location to walk-in customers from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm, Monday through Friday. Processing time for ordering online and by mail can take up to three weeks. The Ohio Department of Health in Columbus has birth records dating back to December 20, 1908. Birth records prior to December 20th of 1908 are available from the probate court of the county where the event occurred.
The Ohio Department of Health in Columbus has death records for Ohio residents who died from January 1945 to the present. Contact this department for copies of records for that time period. Deaths that occurred between 1913 and December 1944 are available at the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus, and copies can be obtained for an administrative fee. For death records prior to 1913, contact your local county clerk.
The state of Ohio began its registration of marriages January 1, 1950. Records after that date can be obtained from the Division of Vital Statistics. Marriage records preceding 1950 were filed with the probate judge in each county. Marriage records are considered one of Ohio’s most cherished genealogical sources because of their early beginnings, full documentation, and completeness. Many existing county records of marriages before 1876 have been filed in the International Genealogical Index. This index is available at the Family History Library and at Family History Centers.
The Ohio Office of Vital Statistics maintains the index of divorces that occurred in Ohio from January 1, 1954 to present. Certified copies of earlier divorce records are available from the Court of Common Pleas where the divorce was granted.
You can search for offenders currently incarcerated in an Ohio prison or offenders who are currently under supervision (sex offenders, offenders on parole, and parole violators at large) by searching through the website of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
You can view Ohio election results and data dating back to 1940 by visiting the Elections & Voting page on the Ohio Secretary of State website.
Campaign Financing Records
Beginning in 2002, Ohio began publicly documenting Ohio campaign contributions and expenditures by filing the data in the Secretary of State’s office. You can find out where the money came from for certain campaigns by visiting the Elections & Voting: Campaign Finance page on the Ohio Secretary of State website.
Money forgotten is essentially the same as money that was never earned, unless you know where to find it. Don’t make the mistake of missing out on getting back money that belongs to you! To see if you have any unclaimed funds under your name, search in the Ohio Division of Unclaimed Funds by entering your individual or business name. While not extremely common, it's definitely possible to find some unclaimed property that belongs to you.
Toxic Release Reports
You can view annual reports on specific toxic chemical releases, transfers, waste management and pollution prevention activities from manufacturing facilities in Ohio by searching through the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), which is a database maintained by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
What to do if your request is denied
If the public office denies your request, the office must provide you with a legal explanation for the denial. If the public office is relying on an exemption, ask the records-keeper to release the non-exempt portions of the record with the exempt portions removed or redacted.
If you feel that the denial does not comply with the Public Records Act, your only remedy is to litigate the case. You can file an action for a writ of mandamus, which is an action asking the court to force the agency to comply with your request. If you prevail in court, you may be entitled to attorney's fees and/or a damage award.