Future of Ohio Constitution to be decided Tuesday

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

This week, Ohio voters will decide whether to make a fundamental change to the state’s constitution.

At the polls, voters will see the issue titled as “Elevating the Standards to Qualify for an Initiated Constitutional Amendment and to Pass a Constitutional Amendment,” a title written by Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, one of Issue 1′s most ardent supporters, and a title that was decried by Issue 1 opponents for being “leading.”

The official ballot language does not lay out how it changes current law. If passed, Issue 1 would:

  • Raise the threshold on all constitutional amendments to pass to 60%. The current threshold is a simple majority.
  • Require citizen-initiated amendments reach signature-gathering quotas in all 88 Ohio counties. Currently signature are required from 44 counties.
  • Remove the cure period, which allows petitioners 10 days to gather more signatures in the event that the Secretary of State finds that a petition fell below the necessary quota after signatures were verified.

A “Yes” vote on Issue 1 approves all of those aforementioned proposals. A “No” vote denies all three. Issue 1 needs a simple majority of voters to approve it for it to pass.

If Issue 1 fails, the rules regarding constitutional amendments will stay as they are. Current law regarding how to amend the state constitution has remained the same since Ohioans reworked a large chunk of the state constitution through a constitutional convention back in 1912.

In the time since, the Ohio Constitution has been amended a total of 127 times; 19 of those approved amendments were proposed by the citizenry, 108 of them were proposed by the legislature. Under a 60% rule, as proposed by Issue 1, eight of those 19 citizen-initiated amendments and 41 of the legislature proposed amendments would have been denied.

Who is trying to change the rules, and what are their reasons?

Issue 1 was first introduced to the current legislature in February 2023, though proposals of a similar ilk had circulated the Statehouse before that. In the Ohio House, it was introduced by Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, who testified that making it harder to amend the state constitution was essential to thwarting out-of-state special interests that attempt citizen-initiated amendments “to achieve their own ends.”

“We have repeatedly watched as special interests buy their way onto the statewide ballot, and then spend millions of dollars drowning the airwaves seeking to secure permanent, fundamental changes to our state by a vote margin of 50% plus one vote,” Stewart told the House Constitutional Resolutions Committee in February.

To illustrate his concerns with the citizen-initiated amendment process, Stewart used the 2009 casino amendment, which legalized the state’s first casinos on specific plots of land in four Ohio cities with 53% of the vote.

Stewart also cited failed citizen-initiated amendments, including the 2017 citizen-initiated proposal that would have reduced penalties for drug possession, which failed at the ballot 37% to 63%; and a 2015 citizen-initiated proposal to legalize marijuana and create a monopoly of growers and sellers, which failed at the ballot 36.4% to 63.6%.

A month later, Sens. Rob McColley, R-Napoleon, and Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, pitched a companion bill in the Senate that proposed the same changes. They touched on the fact that Ohio is one of only 18 states to give citizens direct control over the state constitution and noted that that process would still be available even if Issue 1 were to pass, albeit more difficult to use.

Ultimately, it was the Senate’s proposal that ended up creating Issue 1 and the August election itself just months after the legislature effectively eliminated August elections. Issue 1 moved to the ballot with over ⅗ support in both chambers, despite dissent from five Republican lawmakers and the entire Democratic caucus.

In the months to follow, a political action committee called Protect Our Constitution picked up campaigning for Issue 1 with similar talking points. The campaign has formed a coalition that largely draws from Ohio’s business organizations, including the Ohio Restaurant Association, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the Ohio Pork Council and more.

The campaign has argued that Issue 1′s 60% vote requirement would put Ohio more in-line with other states and that the 88-county requirement would give each county a say in whether or not a citizen-initiated amendment gets on the ballot.

The campaign has been backed by high-profile Republican officials, including Ohio U.S. Senator J.D. Vance and each statewide Republican official. Most closely aligned with Issue 1 is LaRose, Ohio’s top election official and a U.S. Senate candidate who has participated in over 60 events in support of Issue 1.

One of those events included a televised debate where he joined Ohio Right to Life President Mike Gonidakis against Ohio House Minority Leader Allison Russo, D-Upper Arlington, and Mike Curtin, a former state legislator and longtime editor of the Columbus Dispatch.

There, LaRose characterized Ohio as a “relatively easy mark when it comes to amending our constitution,” and argued that policies should be kept out of the constitution entirely, and should instead go through the citizen-initiated statute process — a longer and similarly expensive ordeal for citizens to pass a law that offers no protections to the law itself. Gonidakis concurred, arguing that making it harder to amend the Ohio Constitution would ultimately make Ohio a less appealing place for special interests to spend money.

“We can take the ‘For Sale’ sign off our state constitution by voting yes on Issue 1 and raising the threshold — because they’re going to fly over our state when they realize they can’t slip whatever they want with $10 (or) $15 million,” Gonidakis said.

Gonidakis’ involvement in Issue 1 campaigning has largely been in connection with the abortion-rights amendment that Ohioans will vote on in November that aims to protect abortion access for pregnant women until fetal viability, at least.

If Issue 1 passes, the abortion-rights amendment will need 60% approval from Ohioans to pass. If Issue 1 fails, the abortion-rights amendment will need only a simple majority to pass. Recent polling suggests 57.6% of Ohioans are in favor of protecting abortion access.

Throughout campaigning, Gonidakis and LaRose both have said Issue 1 is about more than just abortion — their concerns range from citizens using amendments to raise the minimum wage, pass gun control, enact stricter livestock standards of care, legalize recreational marijuana or remove qualified immunity. But, the two used the debate to highlight Issue 1′s potential role in thwarting the abortion-rights amendment.

Who’s against changing the rules, and what are their grounds?

Many in the opposition, including Russo, view Issue 1 as an attempt to stop the abortion-rights amendment and a way for the Ohio General Assembly and its Republican supermajority to consolidate its power.

“The motivation is clearly to stop the reproductive rights amendment, but the implications go so far beyond that and take away a right that Ohioans have had for over a century,” Russo said at the debate. The opposition sees the citizen-initiated amendment process as an avenue for gun reform, minimum wage increases, abortion access protections and enforceable fair legislative districts.

Most arguments against Issue 1 are in some way rooted in a distrust of the legislature, particularly for Russo, the leader of 32 other Democrats up against 67 Republicans in the Ohio House. She argued that the citizen-initiated amendment process provides citizens a check on Statehouse lawmakers who, she argued, are largely unresponsive to large swaths of the Ohio population.

“Trying to say the legislature somehow reflects the values of Ohio voters … is a bit outrageous. When you look at the extreme policies that are being passed in the statehouse and where Ohioans really are on some of these issues, they are vastly out of step,” Russo said. “Ohio has this right that when (lawmakers) are that out of step or (when) they are corrupt, (Ohioans) can go to the ballot box and demand changes that reflect where they actually are.”

Every public union endorsement, including from the Fraternal Order of Police and the Ohio Education Association, has gone toward the “vote no” PAC One Person One Vote. Largely, they’re concerned about the legislature eroding unions’ collective bargaining power with right-to-work laws.

Unions and progressive organizers have said that the citizen-initiated amendment process is already sufficiently difficult, and that raising the difficulty, and therefore the costs, is an ineffective way to disincentivize wealthy special interests from spending on Ohio politics. Instead, Issue 1 opponents believe raising the bar will effectively eliminate the possibility of grassroots citizen campaigns in the future.

Opposition leaders including Curtin have taken particular aim at Issue 1′s 88-county rule, which he argued would give a single Ohio county essential veto power over what amendments could go on the ballot, regardless of the size of the county.

The 60% proposal is a primary concern of Republican former Gov. Bob Taft, who joined former Govs. John Kasich, Ted Strickland and Dick Celeste in opposition to Issue 1. Taft’s concern is rooted largely in government effectiveness, particularly around bond issues.

A quirk in the Ohio Constitution requires a constitutional amendment any time the state opts to go into over $750,000 in debt — a rule forged long ago that was never changed. This means many public works projects utilizing bonds, including Taft’s program to rebuild schools and modernize the state’s economy, would have needed 60% approval from voters, which is rare for bond issues.

Who’s funding either side?

It’s not a complete picture of all spending in the Issue 1 race, but recent campaign finance filings from both official campaigns show millions of dollars being poured into the single-issue August election. A majority of each campaign was funded from out-of-state.

The biggest spender was Illinois conservative megadonor Richard Uihlein, owner of Uline, who contributed $4 million to the Protect Our Constitution PAC. Months ago, Uihlein had previously spent money on ads pressuring Republican lawmakers to move Issue 1 to the ballot.

Uihleihn’s contribution made up 82.5% of the Yes campaign’s funding, which totaled at $4.9 million as of July 19.

The Yes campaign said Uihlein’s contribution was unproblematic, noting that his out-of-state money was going toward a cause that would limit out-of-state money in the future, but the campaign wouldn’t confirm any direct communications with him. The donor has a history of spending against abortion-rights movements.

The No side out-raised the Yes campaign, totaling $14.8 million through the same time frame, but several million dollars came from progressive dark money groups in D.C. and California. The campaign declined to comment on the dark money contributions and wouldn’t confirm whether it had direct communications with those contributors.

Ultimately, both sides have been largely bankrolled by out-of-state money. Protect Our Constitution received 14.3% of its total in-state compared to One Person One Vote’s 16.5%.

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