OUR VIEW: Push to amend constitution would diminish the power of Ohioans

We have been closely following several pieces of proposed legislation that would have far-reaching consequences for the way Ohioans are able to directly participate in the governance of their state.

Through House Joint Resolution 1, Senate Joint Resolution 2, Senate Bill 92, and House Bill 144, lawmakers are attempting to change the rules around citizen-led ballot initiatives and referendums.

In April, we solicited responses to an informal survey on how readers felt about efforts to amend the state constitution. We received hundreds of responses from across Ohio. Of those surveyed, 21.2% approved of the amendment efforts, 76.8% disapproved and 2% were undecided.

In today’s Ideas & Voices, read our editorial on the issue, a selection of those submissions, and a statement from the bipartisan Greater Dayton League of Women Voters.

OUR VIEW: Push to amend constitution would diminish the power of Ohioans

This newspaper joins a growing, bipartisan movement of former state governors, attorneys general and other media outlets calling for Ohio legislators to abandon their efforts to amend the Ohio constitution ahead of a consequential November election.”

Seeking to undermine the power of citizen-led ballot initiatives, Republican legislators have introduced and will soon vote on House Joint Resolution 1 and Senate Joint Resolution 2, two proposals that would amend the constitution to require future constitutional amendments to be approved by at least 60% of voters, up from the 50% plus 1 requirement that has been in place for 110 years.

Two other pieces of legislation, Senate Bill 92, and House Bill 144, are also needed to give the General Assembly the power to call for a special election in August to vote on the legislature-driven constitutional amendment — and set aside a $20 million budget to do so.

All of this expense and legislation to create a special August election flies in the face of what Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a champion of these efforts, said in January, when Gov. DeWine signed a bill that did away with most special elections: “August special elections aren’t good for the taxpayer, elections officials, voters or the civic health of our state.”

While it does not appear in the text of any of these bills, a reasonable person can assume that LaRose, Gov. DeWine (who has already said he’ll sign the legislation), and other legislators would reverse their opinion on special elections and suddenly favor increasing the amendment threshold in order to preempt the “Right to Reproductive Freedom” voter signature campaign currently underway. Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman has said as much: “If we save 30,000 lives as a result of spending $20 million, I think that’s a great thing.”

Proponents’ claims that these measures are needed to protect against well-funded, out-of-state interest groups run counter to what is included in the proposed legislation. Beyond the increase from a simple majority vote to a 60% vote, the legislation also includes two provisions that apply to citizen-initiated efforts — and not the General Assembly — that would mandate signature targets in all 88 Ohio counties (as opposed to the 44 required now) and would also eliminate the 10-day grace period that allows petitioners to gather more signatures if some are found deficient. We agree with the Ohio ACLU’s assessment in their testimony against H.J.R. 1 that removing the grace period and increasing from 44 to all 88 counties “guarantees the only campaigns that will qualify for the ballot are the very richest ones.”

Further illustrating the disconnect around messaging that out-of-state, well financed special interest groups are the genuine threat, an Illinois billionaire is funding ads pressuring the Legislature to make it harder to amend the constitution.

There is bipartisan opposition to these efforts, with former governors and attorneys general of both parties describing why this movement is misguided. Among them, former Republican Governor Bob Taft, who wrote in a letter to members of the Ohio General Assembly “it is especially bad public policy to revive the August special election for the purpose of voting on such a consequential constitutional amendment as Senate Joint Resolution 2 or House Joint Resolution 1 which would fundamentally change Ohioans’ voting and constitutional rights.”

More than a century ago, reformers fought hard to secure the initiative and referendum processes now enshrined in Ohio’s constitution. These have been tremendous tools to keep our elected representatives — and their attendant special interests — in check. We ask Gov. DeWine and our General Assembly members to abandon the legislative effort to diminish the “powers reserved for the people” found in Article II, Section 1 of our state’s constitution.

What you told us about efforts to amend the Ohio constitution

APPROVE (21.2% of survey respondents)

I agree with the notion that 60% is needed to have an amendment to the constitution not only for this initiative but future ones as well. Amending the constitution should have a clear backing of the voters. - John Grismer, Montgomery County

The constitution is supposed to be a framework by which laws are considered, enacted and adjudicated. It’s not supposed to be a patchwork of special interest priorities and corporate monopolies. - KC, Hancock County

60% is not that high, it certainly would be indicative of a majority, whereas a simple majority would still be very divisive. A simple majority would be too close to call an issue settled. - Dennis Jans, Montgomery County

The constitution is the framework for how our state is governed and should not be used to settle any particular issue. The legislative powers in the constitution already provide the mechanism to debate and decide issues facing Ohioans. - Ken Standifer, Montgomery County

DISAPPROVE (76.8% of survey respondents)

As an OB/GYN, I have seen maternal and infant mortality rates increase as abortion restrictions have increased in Ohio over the past 10 years. Abortion is part of reproductive care and should be decided by the physician and patient, not politicians. Manipulating the laws to prevent a constitutional amendment for abortion is undemocratic and to require a simple majority at the Statehouse for a 60% threshold on citizen amendments is simply wrong. - Anita Somani MD, Franklin County

Honestly, if this was in any way about keeping things fair, this amendment should only be allowed to pass if it itself achieves the same 60% threshold it aims to instate. But that won’t be the standard because this is about control, not fairness. That this amendment will take advantage of current laws in an attempt to pass and won’t be held to the standards it is proposing is hypocrisy at its finest. And I say this as a citizen of a village in rural Ohio, with a large Republican majority, who will not be fooled by this undemocratic power-grab. Also, $20 million going to a nonessential special election in order to subvert democracy, supported only by the party calling for responsible spending, is insulting to the average citizen - Madaline Eitniear, Williams County

Special interests don’t vote, people do. But special interests can definitely afford to pay canvassers of signatures in all 88 counties; something citizen-led groups will be hard pressed to do. I don’t like the fact that 41% minority vote can win over 59% popular vote. This will ruin citizen-led initiatives for generations. The special election is an obvious, desperate attempt to thwart one issue: reproductive rights for women. It’s both costly and cowardly. - Mary Robertson, Greene County

Gerrymandering prevents voters from holding corrupt or out-of-touch politicians accountable at the ballot box. These same politicians ignored the state Supreme Court’s rulings and our last election used unconstitutional maps. Ballot initiatives are one of the few ways left for citizens to decide what laws we want to live under — and now they’re trying to take that away from us. Yes, outside groups often interfere, but that can be controlled. What should not be controlled is the will of the people. The extreme policies of the extreme right wing are moving Ohio backwards. - Theresa Gasper, Montgomery County

A simple majority of the voting citizens should be adequate to add an amendment to the constitution. It is not okay to vote to raise this threshold just to block the abortion rights amendment vote. Abortion care is healthcare, and, as a physician, I need to be able to offer and discuss this reproductive choice freely and openly with my patients and they should be able to freely make the medical decision that is best for themselves and their loved ones. - Leslie Dingeldein, Cuyahoga County

Whether I believe in protecting abortion access or not has no bearing on the other two questions. The legislature voted to end August special elections. Now they want to spend taxpayer money and go back on that decision for one specific issue? No. The legislature should not be able to pick and choose when they want to break the rules they set up. Lastly, we have a long history in this state of citizen initiatives. It provides the people with an option to make their own decisions about constitutional changes. A 50% + 1 threshold is a fair election result. Majority vote wins. When you change that to 60% now the minority vote (40%) wins. Fair elections are based on majority. - Kristen Beireis, Warren County


League of Women Voters: Do not restrict the ability of citizens to directly participate in democracy

The League of Women Voters of the Greater Dayton Area, a nonpartisan political organization, encourages informed and active participation in government and works to increase understanding of major public policy issues. We are dedicated to protecting voting rights, and the democratic processes that ensure citizens have the ability to participate in making decisions significantly impacting their lives. To that end we are against passage of House Joint Resolution 1 (H.J.R. 1), Senate Joint Resolution 2 (S.J.R. 2) Senate Bill 92 (SB 92) and House Bill 144 (HB 144).

Ballot initiatives have improved the daily lives of Ohio Citizens. Ohio voters have approved pensions for war veterans, and funded school construction. Ohioans voted to raise the minimum wage, provide low-income housing assistance, fund conservation and recreation areas, and invest in local communities, infrastructure improvements, and economic development. The fact is that the vast majority of constitutional amendments that have been passed were initiated by the Legislature. However, some of the best policies in Ohio have been passed for and by the people through their ballot initiatives.

H.J.R. 1 and S.J.R. 2 requiring a 60% vote to pass a proposed amendment is a direct attempt to unreasonably restrict the ability of citizens to directly participate in the process of democracy. It would in fact result in granting greater power to 40% of voters. It would also increase the requirements to even get a citizens proposed amendment on the ballot. Instead of getting signatures from 44 counties, the initiative would require signatures for all 88 counties. The proposed changes are unwarranted.

If H.J.R. 1/S.J.R. 2 pass, Senate Bill 92 and House Bill 144 would call for a special election to be held in August for the sole purpose of voting on the proposed amendment to make it more difficult for any citizen initiated proposed amendment to the Ohio Constitution to be placed on the November ballot and all future ballots.

Just last December, the Ohio General Assembly voted to limit August Special Elections. Historically, voter turnout for special elections is extremely low, puts strain on Boards of Elections and poll workers, frustrate voters, and ultimately waste taxpayer dollars. The August 2022 special election, with only 8% voter turnout cost taxpayers approximately $20 million. It is undemocratic and unfair to put an issue of direct democracy on the ballot in a special election when the vast majority of Ohioans will have no idea there is even an election taking place. If H.J.R 1/S.B. 2 lands on the ballot this August, it is likely that well under 10% of voters in Ohio would be deciding whether or not it should be harder to amend the Ohio Constitution. It is too important an issue to be decided by so few.

Former Governors from both parties have expressed their concerns about this initiative and recommend against it. Many other civic and labor groups also oppose this resolution. We urge our Ohio legislators to vote no and maintain our proud tradition of direct democracy.

- The League of Women Voters of the Greater Dayton Area

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