Analysis: Growing number of Issue 1 boosters connected to election denial

By: - August 4, 2023 4:55 am

In 2022, Secretary of State Frank LaRose (speaking) alongside Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, introducing a constitutional amendment requiring a 60% supermajority for all future citizen-led ballot amendments. (Photo by Nick Evans, OCJ.)

Critics of Issue 1 have long said it’s an anti-democratic measure because it saps voters’ power over the Ohio Constitution compared to that of the state’s highly gerrymandered legislature. They say it would make it all but impossible to force an unrepresentative state government to enact policies supported by majorities of Ohioans.

Seeming to bolster that argument is the growing number of top supporters of Issue 1 who lie about election outcomes they don’t like — or who support politicians who do. 

After all, it’s hard to do something more undemocratic than reject an election just because your favored candidate didn’t win. It’s like saying a football game doesn’t count just because your team lost.

Issue 1 is increasingly associated with people who take that approach to elections.

The vast majority of funding for it is being provided by an Illinois billionaire who also has spent millions supporting politicians who spread the lie that the 2020 presidential election was rigged against Donald Trump. And this week the controversial measure’s most vocal supporter compared Trump’s indictment for trying to overturn the election to what’s done “in third-world dictatorships.”

To top it off, an Arizona politician who has lied both about Trump’s 2020 loss and her own loss last year plans to come to Ohio to promote Issue 1 — to “protect” the Ohio Constitution.

Voters have been casting early ballots for weeks over whether to accept or reject Issue 1 and on Tuesday they’ll go to the polls in a nationally watched election. 

Those pushing Issue 1 say their goal is to protect the state Constitution from corrupting outside influences. But in Ohio’s recent history, those influences have gotten a much warmer reception from the General Assembly than from the voters. Just ask FirstEnergy. 

In reality, Issue 1 would change the state constitution to radically limit a power reserved for voters that was incorporated 111 years ago as part of an anti-corruption movement championed by Theodore Roosevelt.

Issue 1 was put on the ballot by a legislature that is in place after the Republican-dominated Ohio Redistricting Commission ignored five orders from the state Supreme Court to produce less-gerrymandered districts. As an example of how gerrymandered the legislature is, Trump won Ohio by eight percentage points in 2020, but Republicans control 79% of the seats in the state Senate — a 15-point differential.

It might not seem fair, but if Issue 1 passes with just 50% of the vote, it will raise the bar to pass future constitutional amendments to 60%. 

Crucially, Issue 1 also would make it much more difficult — critics say almost impossible — for voters to put proposed amendments on the ballot in the first place. At the same time, it wouldn’t increase the burden for Ohio’s gerrymandered legislature to do the same.

It’s already really hard for citizen-initiated amendments to make the ballot. For an abortion-rights amendment that will go to a vote in November, supporters had to gather more than 400,000 verified signatures from registered voters — and a portion of them had to come from 44 of Ohio’s 88 counties. 

Starting Jan. 1, 2024, Issue 1 would require that a portion come from each of Ohio’s 88 counties — ranging from Franklin with its 1.3 million people to Vinton with its 12,500. And it would eliminate a 10-day “cure” period to fix deficiencies officials find with any of those signatures. 

Critics have said Issue 1 is an attempt to further disempower the majority of Ohio’s voters in at least three ways:

  • By giving the gerrymandered legislature more power relative to voters — perhaps most notably by making it much harder to initiate and pass a more airtight anti-gerrymandering amendment
  • By giving 41% of voters the ability to defeat an amendment at the ballot box that is supported by the other 59%
  • And by giving a county of 12,500 just as much power to keep an amendment from making the ballot as a county that has more than 100 times as many people.

Democracy is founded on the idea that candidates accept the will of the voters and peacefully acknowledge when they lose. In fact, George Washington had a great fear of dying in office. He didn’t want to give his successors the notion that the presidency was for life — as opposed to submitting to regular elections and peacefully ceding power if they lose.

Thanks to this system, with the notable exception of the Civil War, we’ve avoided armed conflict every four years and had a government that has paid at least some attention to the wants and needs of the electorate. Lots of people think that’s what has made the United States so strong economically, militarily and culturally.

All of Ohio’s former governors and attorneys general — no matter which party they belong to — oppose Issue 1. They’ve also acknowledged that whatever their preferred outcome, Trump lost the 2020 election, just as they acknowledged Hillary Clinton’s loss four years earlier.

But the views of the people working hardest to push Issue 1 are murkier.

The effort’s major funder, Illinois billionaire Richard Uihlein, gave an initial $1 million to the campaign and by late last month, he had contributed $4 million of the $4.85 million the “yes” side had raised.

Uihlein’s money also helped fund the disastrous Jan. 6, 2021 rally in Washington, D.C. that preceded the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol that delayed congressional certification of Joe Biden’s election. In addition, he and his wife have given more than $10 million to “election integrity” projects and to support election-denying candidates such as Doug Mastriano, last year’s failed gubernatorial candidate from Pennsylvania who attended the Jan. 6 rally.

Also supporting Issue 1 is Kari Lake, who has lied not only about Trump’s loss in 2020, but also about her own loss in the Arizona governor’s race last year. The Strongsville GOP excitedly announced that Lake would appear in Parma on Monday to whip up support for Issue 1.

And then there’s Issue 1’s most prominent supporter, Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who is also running for U.S. Senate. 

In the wake of Trump’s indictment Tuesday, LaRose took to Twitter and implied that no ex-president can be prosecuted for conduct in office. He said “no American should tolerate the abuse of our justice system to prosecute and persecute political opponents. That’s what they do in third world dictatorships, but that’s not who we are as a nation.”

He wrote that in response to a four-count indictment saying that in trying to overturn the 2020 election, Trump violated laws by using “dishonesty, fraud and deceit” to “impair, obstruct and defeat” the government’s conduct of the election. The indictment also says that Trump broke a law prohibiting “a conspiracy against the right to vote and have one’s vote counted.”

The document lists a long set of facts, the majority of which have long been public and are largely undisputed.

They include Trump’s repeated lies about election fraud even after being told by his own vice president, attorney general, top Justice Department officials, White House lawyers, the Department of Homeland Security, Republican state officeholders and scores of courts — including some with judges he appointed — that his numerous conspiracy theories were false.

It also describes how Trump cajoled Republican state officials to find nonexistent fraud and votes, how he conspired to create slates of fake electors, and how he relentlessly pressured former Vice President Mike Pence to “essentially to overturn the election,”  as Pence himself described it Wednesday.

And the indictment recounts how Trump encouraged people to come to D.C. on Jan. 6, whipped them up with violent rhetoric and even more lies about fraud, and then sent them to the Capitol. Trump then watched TV for more than three hours as the mob attacked police, stormed the building and delayed certification before he was finally persuaded to ask the crowd to exit the building. But as he did, Trump couldn’t resist saying, “We love you,” and then tried to capitalize on the violence, the indictment said. 

After LaRose claimed the indictment was intended to “persecute” Trump, his office was asked whether LaRose had actually read it. His office also was asked which of its allegations he disputes. Finally, LaRose’s office was asked if Ohio’s top elections official believed Trump had lied about the election he lost.

LaRose’s spokesman, Rob Nichols, didn’t respond.



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Marty Schladen
Marty Schladen

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He's won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.