Ohio may make it harder for public to put issues on statewide ballot

Credit: Jay LaPrete

Credit: Jay LaPrete

As lawmakers move swiftly to change how citizens can put issues on the statewide ballot, grassroots groups are calling foul, saying it would strip direct democracy rights that Ohioans have held for more than a century.

The League of Women Voters of Ohio, Common Cause Ohio and 90 other groups on Tuesday announced their opposition to the proposed changes.

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Citizens have two paths to changing policy via the statewide ballot: citizen-initiated statutes or citizen-initiated constitutional amendments. These are direct democracy rights are embedded in the state constitution.

In recent decades, some of the most significant public policy changes arrived in Ohio via ballot issues pushed by citizen groups.

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Among the issues groups have placed on the ballot include:

* Efforts to tie minimum wage increases to inflation,

* Outlaw same-sex marriage,

* Ban smoking at indoor workplaces and legalize casino gambling in the state. The threat of a ballot issue has indirectly pressured lawmakers to take action on thorny topics such as medical marijuana and reform of how the state’s legislative districts are drawn.

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House Joint Resolution 19, which is legislative leaders put on a fast track for action in the lame duck session, would: require petitions for proposed constitutional amendments be submitted by April 1, up from early July; limit the time petition signatures are valid to 180 days; mandate that citizen-initiated constitutional amendments must pass by at least 60 percent of the vote instead of a simple majority.

Over the past century, Ohio voters have approved one-in-four citizen-driven constitutional amendments. Ohioans have rejected 52 such measures and approved 17 between 1913 and 2015, according to a summary from the Ohio Secretary of State.

Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, and House Speaker Ryan Smith, R-Bidwell, have both said they oppose the cottage industry that allows monied special interests to buy a constitutional change that benefits them.

In recent years, out-of-state groups put issues on the ballot such as last year’s effort to change drug crime penalties.

The resolution also calls for making the citizen-initiated statute process a little easier by reducing the required signatures, reducing petition regulations and blocking the Ohio General Assembly from changing or repealing any aspect of a voter-approved citizen law for a year.

Jen Miller of the League and Catherine Turcer of Common Cause Ohio said at a press conference that the proposed changes will make it so only deep-pocketed special interest groups have the resources to take an issue to the statewide ballot.

“It is unfair and undemocratic,” Turcer said. “It makes it so (lawmakers) are grabbing power from the voters and taking it for themselves.”

If lawmakers pass the resolution, it would have to be approved by a statewide vote.

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