Legal expert, voter advocates slam Ohio GOP plan to make citizen ballot initiatives harder to pass
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose talks to reporters. (Photo by Susan Tebben, OCJ.)
The following article was originally published on News5Cleveland.com and is published in the Ohio Capital Journal under a content-sharing agreement. Unlike other OCJ articles, it is not available for free republication by other news outlets as it is owned by WEWS in Cleveland.
Ohio Republicans introduced a new resolution Thursday that purposely makes it more difficult for citizens to amend the state Constitution.
Republican Sec. of State Frank LaRose and state Rep. Brian Stewart (R-Ashville) put forward the “Ohio Constitution Protection Amendment,” which is “designed to help protect the Ohio Constitution from continued abuse by special interests and out-of-state activists.”
In a press conference, the pair announced that the legislation would increase the threshold requirement for a citizen-led constitutional amendment ballot initiative to pass. This would increase the percentage of votes an initiative would need.
The new amendment would require petition-based amendments to pass with 60% of the vote, instead of a simple majority. A simple majority is 50% plus one vote.
“The Ohio Constitution is supposed to serve as a framework of our state government not as a tool for special interests,” the secretary said. “Requiring a broad consensus majority of at least 60% for passing a petition-based constitutional amendment provides a good government solution to promote compromise and to have a historically proven record of passage.”
The two believe that the Constitution has been far “too susceptible” to outside groups.
Steven H. Steinglass, Cleveland State University College of Law dean emeritus, doesn’t understand what groups the two politicians are talking about.
“I don’t think there’s any evidence that we’re being overrun by out-of-state special interest groups that are trying to capture the Constitution,” Steinglass said. “I view that proposal as a solution in search of a problem.”
He isn’t the only one who feels this way. Some activists, like Catherine Turcer with Common Cause Ohio, say this would make it significantly harder for Ohioans, regardless of political affiliation, to have their voices heard.
“It’s just like putting your hand on the scale making it even harder for citizens to challenge the authority of the state legislature,” she said. “And direct democracy is about a check on the state legislature.”
LaRose argued against this.
“If you don’t think that your idea is broadly popular enough to muster 60% vote of the people then, then maybe you should not consider bringing it to the ballot,” he said.
Why is this resolution happening now?
Ohioans are typically super cautious about voting for ballot amendments, Steinglass said, citing data from 1912. Since that time, 19 of 72 amendments proposed by initiative have been approved, Steinglass said.
“I’m not exactly sure what the problem is that they’re trying to solve,” he added. “I don’t think it’s entirely a coincidence that we’re looking forward in the next two years to a number of proposed amendments on the ballot.”
It is likely there will be proposals on reproductive healthcare and the redistricting process, he said.
The Dobbs decision has mobilized voters in six different states across the country. Each state, both Democratic and Republican, chose to keep abortion legal.
“Because of what the Supreme Court decided, the voters are the appropriate people to make that decision,” Turcer said.
Raising the bar of passage could definitely cast doubt on Ohio’s chances, considering data from other states.
Abortion as a constitutional right:
- Kentucky — 52.3% rejected anti-abortion measure
- Kansas — 59% rejected anti-abortion measure
- Michigan — 56.65% approved pro-abortion measure
- California — 66% approved pro-abortion measure
- Vermont — 76.74% approved pro-abortion measure
When asked if this resolution was being introduced because of conversations on an abortion access petition, LaRose skirted the question.
“If this is about one specific issue, then somebody’s not really focused on what we’re trying to accomplish here,” he said.
After being pressed about the timing of it, the secretary said it was a coincidence.
“I will tell you this is an idea that I’ve kicked around for a long time, and there’s no time like the present to make a good government improvement to our, to our state system here in Ohio,” he said.
The other issue that is at the top of Turcer’s mind is redistricting.
The Ohio Redistricting Commission (ORC) continually passed maps that were struck down as unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court.
The Ohio Supreme Court rejected legislative maps for being unconstitutional and gerrymandered for a fifth time in May. In the bipartisan majority statement, O’Connor said the Republicans “engaged in a stunning rebuke of the rule of law” by refusing to create legal maps. The congressional maps have been rejected twice and are still going through the legal process.
To learn more about the redistricting debacle, click or tap here
“There hasn’t been a citizen initiative since 2018,” she said. “In other words, we haven’t had one on the ballot for a really long time.”
That 2018 initiative was about the redistricting process, which was supposed to focus on preventing gerrymandering. But loopholes existed, and the system could be exploited, Turcer said. A new one could possibly be in the works.
“We’re talking about the need to do a citizen initiative to take the mapmaking away from elected officials and create an independent commission,” she said. “The only reason to do this is to thwart the will of the people and to retain power — and the power to gerrymander,” she added.
She found it suspicious that LaRose, who was one of the members of the ORC, is in such a rush to put this forward as new maps are supposed to be drawn this coming year.
This proposal would only raise the threshold for citizen-referred ballot measures, not ones from lawmakers, which Steinglass said is something to keep in mind.
When asked by News 5 why he thought it only impacted the citizens and not the lawmaker’s proposals, the constitutional law expert laughed.
“I think that’s a rhetorical question,” he said. “I know that in 1912, if the delegates to that convention were told that 110 years later, suddenly the General Assembly would try to undercut the proposal that was made at that most important convention — they would turn in their graves.”
LaRose said that is just because lawmakers already need a 2/3 vote from their General Assembly to get the bill on the ballot.
“I think that requiring a constitutional amendment that’s referred by the legislature to pass a 60% threshold two separate times would actually make it a disadvantage to the legislative referral process,” LaRose said.
The Ohio GOP does not need a single Democratic vote to pass legislation or resolutions. The party could even afford to lose a few on their side, and they would still have a supermajority. The House could lose four of its seats and still have total control. The Senate could lose five.
Both Steinglass and Turcer reemphasized this is not a Democrat versus Republican issue: it’s a citizen versus lawmaker issue.
“In Arkansas, even the voters said, ‘we don’t want to make it more difficult for the people to take control of their constitution,'” he said.
Arkansas voters rejected their supermajority vote requirement initiative by 59.14% on election night. It’s very possible this resolution would be shot down by Ohio voters.
“That’s the beauty of this, right? Because all the power really rests with the people of Ohio,” LaRose said.
Follow WEWS statehouse reporter Morgan Trau on Twitter and Facebook.
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