July 26, 2023
An Attempt to Disempower Ohio Voters
Dean and Joseph C. Hostetler-BakerHostetler Chair in Law at Cleveland State University College of Law
For 111 years, since 1912, the Ohio state constitution has enshrined majority rule by enabling the constitution to be amended by a majority of voters. Ohioans opted for majority rule specifically to make their state government more responsive to the people. Certain lawmakers in Ohio and special interests want to change that. The details and timing of their effort, known as State Issue 1, reveal it for what it is, an attempt to disempower Ohio voters and make it harder for them to have their voices heard, most immediately on the issue of abortion rights.
State Issue 1, placed on the ballot by the GOP-controlled state legislature back in May, would require that amendments to the state constitution, whether proposed by the General Assembly or through citizen initiatives, be approved by 60 percent of voters, instead of the current requirement of a simple majority of voters. In addition, Ohioans who want to place an amendment on the ballot would have to collect signatures from at least five percent of voters from the previous gubernatorial election in all 88 counties, rather than the current requirement of 44 counties. This effectively would give veto power to a single county. State Issue 1 would also eliminate the ten-day period in which Ohioans can replace any signatures collected that are deemed faulty by the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office. These are significant changes and would make it substantially harder for citizen initiatives to get on the ballot and for voters to approve them.
Ohio’s existing process has worked well, and Ohioans have been judicious, adopting just 19 of 71 citizen-initiated amendments. With a 60 percent threshold, Ohioans would not have been able to limit increases in unvoted property taxes, eliminate straight-ticket voting, or pass reforms like the Clean Ohio Fund and the Third Frontier Project, which have attracted, retained, and created thousands of Ohio jobs. There is no reason to change the constitutional amendment process now and certainly not with this cynical ploy.
An indication of that cynicism is the fact that the election for State Issue 1 is scheduled for August 8th. Ohio held its statewide primary in August last year and saw record low voter turnout. Low voter turnout is predictable in August, the month when many people are on vacation with their families, trying to enjoy the final days before school starts again, and to generally disengage. For those behind State Issue 1 to schedule the election for August suggests they want low voter turnout, perhaps because they don’t think State Issue 1 has popular support.
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who supports the ballot initiative, has admitted that he “wouldn’t be surprised” by low voter turnout. In fact, LaRose and GOP legislators worked last year to prevent most August elections moving forward because of concerns over low voter turnout. Ohio has not had a statewide issue, such as a constitutional initiative, on an August ballot in almost 100 years. And yet, here we are, with another election in August and with a constitutional initiative as the only item on the ballot.
The timing is intentional. This November could see a ballot measure to protect abortion rights in Ohio. Recent polling suggests strong public support for the measure. Were State Issue 1 to be adopted, however, its new requirements for ballot initiatives would immediately apply to that November ballot measure. Rather than oppose the measure about abortion rights on the merits and let the people of Ohio decide, certain legislators would rather change the rules. They would rather game the system in an effort to thwart the November initiative and anything like it in the future.
Ohio voters already have to face extreme gerrymandering, restrictive voter registration rules, and other barriers to the ballot box erected by conservative supermajorities in the state legislature. Constitutional initiatives are a critical tool for Ohio voters to provide checks and balances of their state government. Moreover, Ohioans have repeatedly demonstrated an appreciation and respect for constitutional initiatives and have given the legislature no reason to revise the process. This is not a partisan issue -- both Republicans and Democrats have spoken out in opposition to State Issue 1, including former Republican and Democratic Ohio Governors and Attorneys General.
The effort behind State Issue 1 has an “under the cover of darkness” cynicism to it, from the substance proposed to the timing of the election. We will soon know whether such cynicism succeeds. Regardless, we hope the lesson that other states take from this is to respect their processes and to ensure that proposals for changing how their state constitutions are amended are transparently taken up and every effort is made to ensure the final result reflects the will of the people.
Russ Feingold is the President of ACS.
Lee Fisher is Dean and Joseph C. Hostetler-BakerHostetler Chair in Law at Cleveland State University College of Law. Fisher previously served as Ohio Lt. Governor (2007-2011) and Ohio Attorney General (1991-1995). Follow Lee Fisher on Twitter @fisher4justice.