Ballot measure making it harder to amend Ohio’s Constitution facing second lawsuit
The organization One Person One Vote has filed a second lawsuit, challenging the language recently approved by the Ohio Ballot Board
COLUMBUS, Ohio — MAY 10: Hundreds of protesters against SJR 2 fill the rotunda before the Ohio House session, May 10, 2023, at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.)
The organization One Person One Vote has filed a new Supreme Court case related to an August amendment proposal looking to make it more difficult to change Ohio’s constitution. The organization has already challenged lawmakers’ attempt to place the question, which would raise the bar for voters to pass amendments from 50% to 60%, on the August special election ballot. The latest complaint has to do with the ballot language Ohioans will see when they cast their vote.
The filing claims the ballot board adopted “a misleading, prejudicial ballot title and inaccurate, incomplete ballot language that improperly favor the Amendment in flagrant violation Ohio’s Constitution and laws and this Court’s jurisprudence.”
The plaintiffs want to court to order revisions or substitute the full text of the amendment as the ballot language.
The Ballot Board’s language
It’s the board’s job to cut through the legalese and craft a neutral, easily understood description of what a given proposal will do. The secretary of state leads the five-member body, and due to constraints on members’ partisanship, the secretary effectively holds the deciding vote.
At a hearing last week, an attorney for One Person One Vote brought up numerous critiques of the proposed language. The drafts made no mention of existing constitutional standards, employed words like “elevate” to cast the changes in a positive light, and even included factual inaccuracies about signature gathering.
Nevertheless, the majority Republican board approved the language along party lines without any changes.
The court challenge
In its complaint, One Person One Vote elaborated on the shortcomings it identified in the ballot board hearing. Again, the group’s chief complaint had to do with the language identifying only the end result, rather than how the amendment changes existing law.
Instead of explaining the threshold for approving constitutional amendments would rise from a simple majority to a 60% supermajority, the ballot board’s language only identifies the 60% threshold.
“As a consequence, a voter might take the ballot language to mean that the people of Ohio do not presently get to vote on proposed amendments at all,” the complaint reads, “and might even understand the amendment itself to create that right in the first instance.”
“Such a blatantly misleading omission contravenes fifty years of this Court’s precedents,” it adds.
In addition to setting a higher threshold for passage, the amendment requires organizers collect signatures from all 88 counties instead of the 44 required now. It also eliminates a period in which organizers can collect additional signatures if their first submission falls short.
The complaint found fault in how the ballot language explains both of those provisions, as well.
One Person One Vote criticized the ballot language for saying the amendment “specif(ies)” that there won’t be a cure period, rather than explaining the amendment would eliminate it.
On signature collection, the group argued the ballot language “does not clear even the minimal bar of factual accuracy.” It describes the requirement as 5% of a county’s eligible voters instead of the 5% who voted in that county in the previous gubernatorial election.
“This is a considerable difference,” the complaint noted, “amounting in Hamilton County, for example, to a difference of nearly 15,000 signatures using 2022 figures.”
Ask and outlook
The plaintiffs want the court to direct the board to come up with new ballot language. They argue the new version must “must fully and accurately describe the status quo,” including that it has been the standard since 1912. Alternatively, they argue, the board could submit the proposed amendment’s text in full to voters.
They also call on the court to direct Secretary LaRose to come up with a new title. “Elevating the standards,” they argue “implies that Ohio’s standards to amend its Constitution are currently too low.” The choice of ‘elevating’ rather than value neutral words like change or modify creates a “prejudicial” impression among voters.
One Person One Vote claims they’re entitled to a rewrite because state law prohibits the ballot title and language misleading voters. The group notes the court’s case law establishes a three-part test. Voters have a right to know what they’re voting on, language that would persuade for or against the proposal is prohibited and the cumulative effect of any deficiencies dictates whether the language is valid.
A spokesman for Secretary LaRose declined to weigh in on the lawsuit, saying only that “we don’t comment on litigation.”
Follow OCJ Reporter Nick Evans on Twitter.
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