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Why the Ohio GOP Wants to Make It Harder to Amend the State Constitution
And how their plan may backfire.
ON AUGUST 8, OHIO VOTERS will go to the polls in a special election that will determine if citizen-proposed constitutional amendments should require 60 percent support to pass rather than the currently required simple majority.
Ohio is one of 17 states where citizens can propose and vote on constitutional amendments, and three of these states require supermajorities—Colorado (55 percent), Florida (60 percent), and Illinois (60 percent). Citizen-initiated amendments have been around in Ohio since 1914, and voters have approved just 19 of the 71 proposed amendments since then.
So with fewer than a third of the proposed amendments having been approved, why change the procedure now, making it even more difficult to obtain passage? The underlying issue is abortion. An amendment that will likely be on the ballot in November would establish a constitutional right to abortion in Ohio—hence the special election three months before. Polls say the abortion-rights amendment in November would pass easily if the simple majority rules remain in place. Bump the requirement up to 60 percent, and the Ohio anti-abortion coalitions think they have a chance of stopping it.
Keeping in mind Kansas’s special election in August 2022, in which 59 percent of voters rejected an amendment that would have banned abortions in the state, and Kentucky’s election in November of that year, in which 52 percent did so, Ohio Republicans are trying to move the goalposts.
IT’S NOT JUST THE SUBSTANCE at issue in this special election that’s unusual, but also the timing of it. The Ohio legislature passed a bill late last year removing special elections in August from the state’s electoral calendar. “These unnecessary off-cycle elections aren’t good for taxpayers, election officials or the civic health of our state. It’s time for them to go,” Ohio’s Republican secretary of state, Frank LaRose, told the state legislature last year. He pointed to costs in the tens of millions of dollars (mostly borne by counties) and low turnout as reasons to abandon August elections and consolidate them with general elections in November.
LaRose’s proposal passed—but in May, the Ohio legislature, in which Republicans enjoy supermajorities in both houses, passed a joint resolution allowing an exception this year. The concerns about high costs and low turnout apparently didn’t apply for this one special election.
LaRose blatantly admitted that abortion was the reason for the exception in May at a county dinner that was recorded on video. “This [special election] is 100 percent about keeping a radical pro-abortion amendment out of our constitution,” said LaRose, who is thought to be a likely Republican challenger to Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in 2024. “The left wants to jam it in there this coming November.”
But the left is not seeing this as a political “jam” in the ways LaRose is portraying it, and is selling voting against this issue as less abortion-related, and more of a voting-rights issue.
“What happens in Ohio, win or lose, will have an impact moving forward and have a reverberating effect across the country, because it’s stuck between two major election years, and it’s a special election,” Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the left-leaning Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, recently told the Associated Press. “Whatever happens, it will set the tone for how we go into 2024 legislative sessions, what tactics, what nuances state legislatures may do to try and undermine the will of the people, and impact the ability of citizens to bring issues to the ballot.”
EVEN THOUGH THE SPECIAL ELECTION BILL would require a supermajority to approve constitutional amendments, it only needs a simple majority to become law, which also means a simple majority can defeat it. And it doesn’t look as though the GOP has this one sewn up.
“It’s cliché to talk about turnout, but this is the case that this is really all about turnout,” David Niven, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati, observed:
It’s such an unusual time to vote and such an unusual circumstance, as this is a one-item ballot. The effort that the two sides are going to go to to ID voters and turn them out probably will be as intense per voter as anything we’ve ever seen in Ohio.
An August special election would normally be a low-turnout affair, but that may not be the case this time. Requests for mail-in ballots suggest high voter engagement. As of July 6, Franklin County (Columbus) elections officials say they’ve received 5,969 absentee ballot applications, compared to 426 during the equivalent special election in 2022. High turnout in Kansas’s 2022 special election an abortion was an early sign of Democratic strength before the midterm election. (Overall, turnout in both the Kansas and Kentucky abortion referendums was quite high, reaching two-thirds of the turnout in the 2020 presidential general election in those states.) It looks like Ohio’s Democrats are bringing out voters in droves as well.
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And it’s not just Democrats. Even though 53 percent of Ohio voters chose Trump in 2020, according to one recent poll, 66 percent of Ohio residents said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, up from 56 percent in December 2018. Only 6 percent of Ohioans said abortion should be illegal in all cases. Those numbers are very similar to neighboring Michigan and Pennsylvania, which have much more pro-choice laws and elected leaders.
Another poll, released last month, asked: “An Ohio proposed amendment aims to safeguard personal autonomy on matters such as abortion, contraception, and fertility treatment. Do you agree or disagree with this proposition?” Fifty-eight percent of respondents agreed with the amendment’s provisions, with 23 percent in opposition and the remaining 20 percent unsure.
Those numbers may even be slightly underselling the point. Women outvote men by about 53 percent to 47 percent nationally, and the numbers for Ohio are similar. In the 2020 election, 3.2 million women voted in Ohio, compared to 2.9 million men. In an election this controversial, and one that has such clear gender-specific considerations, a difference of 300,000 registered voters could make a difference.
The Ohio GOP has not put itself in an advantageous position. If the 60 percent amendment rule passes next month, they will still have to fight hard against the amendment itself in November. From a tactical point of view, this isn’t a very shrewd way of setting up the party for a strong election in 2024. Stirring up the opposition, which is already all but crushed, doesn’t make sense. In other words, if Republicans need Sen. Sherrod Brown to lose in 2024 to retake the Senate, they shouldn’t make it easier for him to win re-election by juicing his turnout with repeated votes on issues that unite his coalition and divide their own.
What explains this tactical foolishness? Republican Ohio House member Brian Stewart, whom Cleveland.com describes as “instrumental” in the effort to raise the vote threshold to 60 percent, explains that the the aim is to block liberals:
I would say over the last 15 years, there’s definitely been an increase in what a lot of Republicans and conservatives would consider to be far-left ballot proposals. . . . There does seem to be a shift nationally and amongst liberal groups that they’re going to focus more of their energy and more of the national spending on trying to achieve through ballot campaigns destructive policies that they could never get through a state legislature.
Stewart and the rest of the Ohio GOP will soon find out how well that works.
Daniel McGraw is a freelance writer and author in Lakewood, Ohio. Twitter: @danmcgraw1.