Voters casting ballots. | Mario Tama/Getty Images
More than 140 groups representing voters, teachers, the faith community, and good government on Tuesday had a message for Secretary of State Frank LaRose and GOP lawmakers: Any attempt to make it harder for voters to amend the state Constitution will be unpopular, expensive, and likely unsuccessful.
Representatives of some of those groups gathered at the Statehouse to voice their opposition to House Joint Resolution 6. That’s a bill that would pave the way to requiring that any citizen-initiated amendment not only go through the existing, difficult process to get a potential amendment on the ballot, but also get 60% of the vote to pass, instead of the current simple majority.
Meanwhile under HJR 6, constitutional amendments placed on the ballot by Ohio’s gerrymandered legislature would still only need a simple majority to pass. In other words, the measure itself could become part of the Ohio Constitution by getting less of the vote than it would require citizen-initiated amendments to get.
“I see that there are a few people in the state who are determined to stamp out the voices of the rest of us,” said Rev. Dr. Amariah McIntosh of the Ohio Council of Churches.
Ohio’s current system of citizen-led efforts to amend the state Constitution originated in 1912. And critics of HJR 6 said that LaRose and his allies have failed to make a convincing case for why it needs to be changed now.
“Frank LaRose thinks his vote should count more than other Ohioans should,” said Dennis Willard of We Are Ohio.
LaRose’s office didn’t respond to questions for this story.
But in a press conference earlier this month, the state’s top election official said he is supporting the measure because he wants to keep wealthy special interests from putting unwise amendments into the Ohio Constitution. However, LaRose is yet to cite any such amendment in the state charter that HJR 6 is meant to protect against.
LaRose also claimed that he wasn’t introducing it in an attempt to block citizen amendments that would protect abortion rights or again attempt to limit extreme partisan gerrymandering. Changing the Constitution needs to be part of a much longer, deliberative process instead of being concerned with such short-term considerations, he said.
But his office wouldn’t answer when asked why he was trying to ramrod the measure through in a lame-duck session and trying to get it on the May ballot.
In a letter to legislative leaders, opponents of the HJR 6 disputed LaRose’s claim that the existing process has led to profligate changes to the state Constitution.
“There hasn’t been a citizen-initiated ballot measure before voters since 2018,” it said. “Over the past 10 years, there were only four elections with ballot measures through signature collection. In the past 50 years, there were 28 years without a citizen initiative on the ballot. Of those elections that had a ballot measure, only a handful of elections had more than one issue for voters to consider.”
It’s important to point out that not all of those citizen initiatives were attempts to amend the Ohio Constitution. There is a separate process by which citizens can initiate statutory laws — which then can be changed or scrapped by the legislature.
Opponents of HJR 6 said that if LaRose and his allies really wanted to limit citizen-initiated amendments, there’s a more effective way to do that. They could make it easier to gather petitions for citizen-initiated statutes and require that they remain on the books for at least a few years.
“Why would you do an initiated statute when the next day people at the Statehouse can take it away?” asked Catherine Turcer of Common Cause Ohio.
Molly Shack of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative has worked on a number of citizen-led initiatives, including a 2011 effort that stopped a law intended to bust public-employee unions and on efforts to end gerrymandering in the state legislature.
She said that with HJR 6, LaRose and its supporters in the legislature are trying to muzzle Ohioans.
“This attack on the voices of the people of Ohio has to be stopped,” Shack said. “It has to be stopped today and if it isn’t stopped, we will fight it all the way. Because Ohioans aren’t stupid in spite of what Frank LaRose thinks. Our voters know how to make decisions for themselves.”
The speakers at Tuesday’s press conference couldn’t pinpoint who at the national level has been pushing measures such as HJR 6, but instances are said to be increasing.
The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a group that advocates for progressive ballot measures, reports that in 2017 it was monitoring 33 bills intended to alter the citizen-initiative process. By 2022, that number had increased to 109, it said.
Even so, it appears that measures making it harder for citizens to amend their state constitutions aren’t very popular — without regard to the partisan makeup of the electorate.
“This should not be a partisan issue,” said Rachel Coyle of Innovation Ohio. “LaRose and (state Rep. Brian) Stewart (R-Asheville) are trying to take power away from Ohioans and give it to politicians.”
In conservative Arkansas, voters this year shot down a measure similar to the one LaRose and Stewart proposed for Ohio by a 59-41 margin. And in South Dakota, voters shot down a proposal to require 60% to pass any citizen-initiated measures that would raise taxes or fees by a margin of 67-33.
In 2018 — also a lame-duck session — GOP lawmakers introduced an earlier resolution that would not only have required 60% to pass a citizen-initiated amendment to the Ohio Constitution. It also would have made it harder to gather the signatures needed to get it on the ballot in the first place. It didn’t make it out of committee.
It’s also unclear whether LaRose and Stewart have much support among other Republican leaders. A spokesman for Gov. Mike DeWine didn’t immediately respond Tuesday to a question about the governor’s stance on HJR 6.
One of its opponents predicted tough sledding for supporters of HJR 6 if they move forward.
“We know it’s unpopular because we’ve seen that in other states,” said Jen Miller of the League of Women Voters of Ohio. “We know it’s unpopular because we defeated a similar effort in the lame duck of 2018. But the position we’re trying to communicate to the supporters of HJR 6 is that a ‘yes’ campaign would be very difficult and very expensive because we have the people on our side.”
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