Issue 1: How it would make signature requirements stricter for Ohio amendment initiatives

Early votes and absentee ballot requests have poured in on Issue 1, a pivotal vote today that has permanent implications on how Ohioans and their elected representatives can amend the state constitution by adding new hurdles to the process.

On both sides, most of the conversation around Issue 1 has been focused on its proposal to require future amendments to garner 60% approval from Ohioans in order to pass, changed from the current simple majority requirement.

The 60% rule is easy to understand. It changes the rules on proposed amendments across the board and it fires up both sides of the abortion issue ahead of an abortion-rights citizen-initiated amendment proposal expected on the ballot this November.

But beneath the 60% headline, Issue 1 proposes two rule changes focused on making it harder for citizen-initiated petitions to get on the ballot in the first place — a set of rules that proponents and opponents have vastly different outlooks on.

How Issue 1 would change signature quotas for citizen-initiated amendments

The current rules around citizen-initiated amendments have been in place since 1912. Citizen groups looking to amend the constitution need to get permission from the Ohio Attorney General and the Ohio Ballot Board before collecting signatures to get their specific proposal on the ballot.

In order to get their proposal on the ballot, petitioners must:

  • Collect a total number of valid signatures equal to at least 10% of the total vote cast for the office of governor at the last gubernatorial election.
    • Under Issue 1, this would stay the same.
  • From at least 44 of the 88 counties in Ohio, petitioners must have collected a number of valid signatures equal to at least 5% of the total vote cast for the office of governor in that county at the last gubernatorial election.
    • Under Issue 1, the 5% quota requirement would be raised to all 88 counties instead of just 44.

Here’s what that means in practical terms: In the 2022 gubernatorial race, Montgomery County had 187,104 residents cast their vote for governor. In order for a petition group to count Montgomery County toward putting an issue on the ballot, the group would need to collect 9,355 valid signatures in the county.

Under current law, petitioners would need to complete that process in 44 counties, while reaching the state’s 10% quota overall, in order to get their petition on the ballot. Under Issue 1, groups would be required to hit the 10% statewide quota and meet the 5% quota in all 88 counties.

How signature quotas apply practically

Those proposed requirements — along with Issue 1′s proposal to eliminate the 10-day cure period that allows citizen petitioners to collect more signatures if the signature verification process sees the campaign fall below county or state quotas — have been a major, but less marketable, aspect for Issue 1 opponents and supporters alike.

Those opponents include Jeff Rusnak, the lead strategist for Protect Choice Ohio, an organization behind the abortion-rights amendment expected to be on the statewide ballot this November.

The Protect Choice Ohio campaign is the most recent to try its hand at using Ohio’s citizen-initiated amendment to alter state law. Over the course of about three months, it collected and turned in 709,786 signatures, needing 413,487 signatures to be validated in order to meet the 10% statewide quota.

While the campaign’s volunteers and paid petitioners did visit all 88 counties, it collected only enough signatures to potentially meet the 5% quota in 60 counties, pending verification. The campaign’s 60 counties is more than enough to get an amendment on the ballot under current law, but it would have been 28 counties short if subject to Issue 1.

Rusnak said that he believes current law suffices — meeting quotas in 44 counties is difficult enough as-is, it’s expensive but manageable, and it requires campaigns to reach a wide array of communities and voters in order to get a proposal on the ballot.

Spencer Gross, spokesperson for the “Yes” campaign supporting Issue 1, told this news outlet that Issue 1′s 88-county requirement would be a way to ensure that petitioners give ample time to Ohio’s rural counties.

“All Ohioans ought to have a say in whether or not we vote on something as important as our state’s founding document,” Gross said. “Right now, with the signature requirements the way they are, you can do the bare minimum in some of the counties while just banking huge numbers of signatures in large metropolitan areas and you can essentially ignore a lot of the more rural parts of the state.”

Rusnak said that’s not true in practicality.

“We did not ignore large parts of the state,” Rusnak said. “The way the law is written now works. It’s half of the counties that it forces you to go into at minimum — and that’s a minimum level. You’ll see from our results that we were literally in all 88 counties and we met the requirements in many more than the 44. Again, this is nothing more than a bunch of misinformation and deception on their part.”

This news outlet asked Rusnak and Gross both if the county requirement should be a number between 44 and 88. Rusnak said the 44 county rule is fine, Gross said the 88 county rule is the only way to ensure that every Ohioan has a voice on what gets to the ballot.

Notably, the 88-county requirement would give a singular county an effective veto-power. In the event that 87 of Ohio’s counties want an amendment to reach the ballot and a singular county doesn’t, the measure wouldn’t get on the ballot under Issue 1.

Rusnak said this was one of his two major concerns he had with Issue 1′s 88 county requirement. His other major concern is centered on the added costs campaigns would have associated with organizers, paid petitioners, campaign awareness, printing and legal assistance.

“If I were going to guess what it would cost if you had an 88-county requirement, it could easily, easily, double the cost, if not triple it,” Rusnak said. “It would be an extremely expensive proposition to do that. Extremely expensive.”

Rusnak, who has worked on petitioning campaigns since the ‘90s, contends that making it harder and more expensive to get proposals on the ballot would discourage grassroots petitioners and create an environment where only well-financed campaigns can get amendment proposals on the ballot.

“The problem they are creating is exactly what they’re trying to take on,” Rusnak said.

Gross said that the state is already seeing well-financed campaigns backed by special interests use the citizen-initiated constitutional amendment process to target the Ohio Constitution.

“We’re already seeing the big money come in and try to push this stuff. That’s what we’re seeing already. Out-of-state special interests are the ones that are pushing these to begin with, so nothing would fundamentally change there,” Gross said. “That’s what we’re trying to prevent by making a more elevated threshold to amend the state’s constitution.”

When asked what big-money special interests Gross was referring to, he said 2011′s casino amendment, passed by 53%, and 2015′s recreational marijuana amendment, denied by 63.6% of Ohioans, were illustrative of special interests that the “Yes” campaign is concerned about.

“And though the marijuana issue was rejected by the voters, our stance is that we ought to not be playing chicken with the state constitution every time a big money special interest can try to buy their way into the constitution,” Gross said.

The same year Ohio voters rejected enshrining recreational marijuana use in the constitution, they also narrowly passed an anti-monopoly amendment into the state constitution, meant to block special interests from using a constitutional amendment to create a financial advantage. It passed with 51.5% and would have been blocked if subject to Issue 1′s 60% rule.

Rusnak and Gross were both asked if the anti-monopoly amendment went far enough in protecting Ohio’s constitution.

“I think we’ve seen that’s the case. I think at times there have been folks that have thought about or tried to do things and then realized it doesn’t work,” Rusnak said. “Essentially, it prohibited what the casino amendment did, which is write into the constitution that much specificity giving certain folks an advantage that other enterprises did not have, so (the anti-monopoly amendment) did place those limits there.”

Gross responded to the question by touting Issue 1′s 60% threshold.

“What we’re trying to do is bring Ohio more in line with the vast majority of states in this country,” Gross said, noting that Ohio offers citizens greater access to the constitution than the vast majority of other states. “Thirty-two (states) don’t even allow citizens to vote on constitutional matters; 18 do, and of those 18, nine have an elevated threshold above 50% + 1. We don’t think this is a radical idea, we think this is something more in line with the rest of the country, and certainly where the framers of the United States constitution are.”

Gross was then asked if Issue 1′s 88 county signature gathering requirement would get Ohio in-line with the states that do allow citizen-initiated amendments to get on the ballot.

“We feel that the entirety of the state should have buy-in, whether or not that conforms with some of the other states, that I could opine on at a different point, I think,” Gross said. “What we’re trying to accomplish here is just to make sure that the entirety of the state has buy-in on this process and currently they do not.”

Rusnak declined to comment on whether he was more worried about the proposed 60% vote threshold the the proposed 88 county signature requirement in Issue 1. He characterized the 60% threshold as a measure that could have immediate impact, potentially curtailing Protect Choice Ohio’s abortion-rights amendment expected on the November ballot, but noted that Issue 1 will have a permanent effect on how Ohio changes its constitution.

“Over the long haul, the 88 county requirement and the lack of a cure period are also very dangerous aspects,” Rusnak said.

Ultimately, voters will have their say on Issue 1.

“That’s the entire point of putting Issue 1 to voters is to allow voters to decide at the ballot box whether or not they want to have these added protections in place. Voters do get to decide, this is a very democratic process, and again, having an elevated threshold for something as important as the state’s founding document is not an undemocratic idea, it’s one that’s shared by the vast majority of states in this country,” Gross said.

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