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Should Ohio make it harder for citizens to amend state constitution? So far, 140 groups say no

Nov 30, 2022 12:13 PM

Laura Hancock,
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohio is the third state where Republicans have tried to make it harder for citizen groups to amend state constitutions, according to a coalition of 140 groups that vowed on Tuesday to defeat the effort.

Ohio House Joint Resolution 6 would ask Ohio voters to increase the threshold required for citizen-initiated constitutional amendments to pass at the ballot box to 60%. Currently, a simple majority is necessary – 50% plus 1 vote.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican who backs the resolution, hopes it will pass the legislature by the end of the year so voters can decide the matter in May.

Already this year, Republicans in Arkansas and South Dakota tried to increase the threshold in their states to 60%. Arkansas voters rejected the proposal on Nov. 8. South Dakotans defeated it on June 7, said Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio.

Common Cause Ohio was among a group of 140 voter rights and left-leaning organizations that gathered Tuesday to announce opposition to HJR 6. They’re sending a letter Tuesday to LaRose, and House Speaker Bob Cupp and Senate President Matt Huffman, both Republicans from Lima, asking them to halt efforts to increase the threshold by which citizen-initiated constitutional amendment must pass.

If the legislature passes HJR 6 and puts it on ballot, the groups will form a campaign committee and work to defeat it at the ballot box, said Dennis Willard, of We Are Ohio.

“We’re trying to communicate to the supporters of HJR 6 that a yes campaign would be very difficult and very expensive, because we have the people on our side,” said Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio.

Miller called HJR 6 undemocratic because it restricts direct democracy. Ohio’s current citizen-initiated process has been in place since 1912.

The groups plan to expand their coalition to include conservative-leaning organizations. The American Policy Roundtable is a conservative group that came out early in opposition to the change.

LaRose pitched the idea of raising the requirement just before Election Day, and then backed the resolution proposed by state Rep. Brian Stewart, a Pickaway County Republican. They both said that it’s too easy to amend the Ohio Constitution, and over the years the document has been loaded with details that should be state laws, such as the locations of casinos. They say well-funded, out-of-state organizations can easily propose constitutional amendments.

HJR 6 would only affect citizen-initiated constitutional amendments. Constitutional amendments proposed by the General Assembly would still be able to pass by a simple majority of voters, though they require a supermajority of state lawmakers to send them to the ballot. This is unfair, the groups said Tuesday.

“One rule for me, and another for thee,” said Molly Shack, of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative.

Shack said that “Ohioans are not stupid” and need to be trusted to decide whether to amend the Constitution.

Data from LaRose’s office showed that Ohioans don’t pass many citizen-initiated amendments. There have been 16 amendments proposed since 2000, and 11 have failed. Of the five that passed, only three had 60% or more of the vote.

Ohio is one of 18 states where citizens can attempt to amend the state constitution through an “initiated amendment,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, though Mississippi’s supreme court has invalidated its law. The Virgin Islands also allow for an initiated constitutional amendment.

In 16 of those states, including Ohio, proposals that qualify go directly to the ballot. In Massachusetts, proposals are submitted to the legislature for a chance to act on it, but it goes to voters if lawmakers reject or ignore it. Mississippi’s law also allowed for such “indirect initiatives.”

LaRose has said nine of the states where citizens can initiate a constitutional amendment require a “supermajority,” but only Florida require the 60% threshold that he is proposing in Ohio. Illinois allows for an amendment to pass with 60% or a simple majority of all voting in the election.

The other states LaRose has cited have a higher bar than a simple majority, but their requirements are different from what he has proposed for Ohio. For example, Nevada requires voters to approve proposed constitutional amendments in two consecutive elections. Others have voter turnout requirements in addition to majority margins needed for passage.

Far more states allow citizen-initiated changes to state law, as opposed to amending state constitutions. Only five states – Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Mississippi and New Mexico – don’t allow for initiated changes to state law, according to NCSL. In all other states, citizens can submit petitions either to their legislature or directly to voters.

Frank LaRose and Ohio Republicans have launched an all-out assault on voters and democracy

Nov 29, 2022 2:29 PM

Marilou Johanek, Ohio Capital Journal

Right now, at least, Ohioans can bypass an out-of-step legislature and go straight to statewide voters to remedy wrongs and enshrine rights in the Ohio Constitution. It is not an easy process by design. No slam dunk. But amending the state constitution through citizen-led ballot initiatives gives people power to change policy that politicians won’t. 

The right of everyday citizens to petition for constitutional amendments in statewide referendums can move the needle on progress and circumvent those standing in its way. It is direct democracy in action. Cherish it. Since 1912, Ohio voters with steeled perseverance and unstoppable drive could directly amend their constitution through ballot petition by winning a simple statewide majority, or 50% plus one vote, at the polls.

But two weeks ago, Ohio’s elections chief abruptly announced an urgent need to raise the threshold for passage of those citizen-initiated amendments to a 60% supermajority. Curiously, the higher ceiling for public petitions would not apply to amendments initiated by the Republican-dominated General Assembly, which would only require a simple majority to pass. 

Secretary of State Frank LaRose is spearheading a plan with state Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, to fast-track legislation through the lame duck session and rush this proposed constitutional amendment onto the statewide ballot in May. The lawmakers’ amendment will make it harder for voters to amend the constitution at the ballot box. That’s the point.

With speed and stealth during the waning weeks of this year, Ohio Republicans are scheming for constitutional insurance to thwart the ability of people to check power in government with petitioned amendments that complicate absolute control. LaRose figured the odds of lawmakers winning against citizens would be better in an off-year election with typically low voter turnout. 

Maybe no one will notice what the MAGA team player (angling for a U.S. Senate seat) dared to pull on Ohioans whose votes he will court. Maybe no one will fault him for the bogus pretext he concocted to block public-petitioned constitutional amendments from becoming law. 

Maybe no one will see through the red herring he employed to limit the authority of voters to achieve what they can’t under undemocratic rule. It is laughably inventive. The last recourse of Ohio voters to petition permanent change in state laws through citizen-created ballot amendments needs to be undermined to “help protect the Ohio Constitution from the continued abuse by special interests and out-of-state-activists.” Wait, what?

LaRose won’t unpack his fabricated solution-in-search-of-a-problem because he can’t. Hard to press the case for all that supposed outsized influence on the process of citizen-initiated amendments when 11 out of 16 in the past two decades have gone down in defeat. It’s not true. Like massive voter fraud. Same Republican smokescreen to seize power, different pitch.

But LaRose framed his ruse — to prevent voters from instituting popular policy via their constitution — to sound like a good thing. The “Ohio Constitution Protection Amendment” is nebulous phrasing that could fool voters who don’t know better. Somebody blare the warning sirens. This LaRose sham must be stopped before it is waved through the legislature and into the state constitution in a sleepy primary election that voters sit out. 

Ohio Republicans are tilting the playing field to their advantage. Again. They’re putting their thumb on the scales. Again. They know a majority of citizens want access to abortion in the state spelled out in the constitution — as opposed to a statute which can be overridden by legislators on the far side of extreme. 

Republicans know that voters are motivated to fix what failed miserably in two constitutional amendments that did nothing to bar GOP kingpins in the Statehouse from gerrymandering with impunity. They know that activists, unable to make any headway among absolutists in the General Assembly, are working on constitutional amendments to advance what most Ohioans support, from increasing the minimum wage to green-lighting recreational marijuana and curbing gun violence.

LaRose and Republican legislators want to get ahead of all these proposals and kneecap them with a constitutional amendment that changes the rules of the game to favor those with a stranglehold on power. Over a century of direct democracy, practiced by Ohioans who were undeterred by despotic overlords and determined to outmaneuver them with petition-based constitutional amendments, is being attacked to silence dissent.

Abortion rights won’t be written into the state constitution with 59% of Ohio voters. Same goes for every citizen-fueled amendment on the ballot that loses by a similar majority under LaRose’s new barrier. Just as he planned. His disdain toward statewide voters running out of options under authoritarian dictates is striking. “If you don’t think that your idea is broadly popular enough to muster 60% vote of the people then, then maybe you should not consider bring it to the ballot,” he sneered.   

Maybe LaRose should not consider running for higher office. Ohioans, all of us, conservative and liberal, cannot let one party with an insatiable appetite for power take away our voice, our right to petition for constitutional redress and protections, our majority rule. It is happening in real time. We the people are the only ones who can stop it with our vocal opposition and our votes. 

Democracy is no longer a given in this state. Wake up, Ohio! The sirens are blaring. 


LaRose wants to make it harder for voters to amend constitution but evidence of a problem is lacking

Nov 28, 2022 2:31 PM

Marty Schladen, Ohio Capital Journal

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose denied that he wanted to block abortion protections or anti-gerrymandering measures when he announced that he wanted to hustle through a measure that would make it harder for voters to amend the Ohio Constitution.

But he’s failed to point to a single amendment in the Constitution as an example of what he’s trying to protect against by changing rules that have been in place for more than a century.

LaRose is proposing that — after advocates clear the already high hurdles to get proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot — they also be required to get at least 60% of the vote instead of the 50% plus one vote that’s currently needed.

Meanwhile, amendments initiated by Ohio’s gerrymandered legislature would continue to need only 50% of the popular vote to make their way into the state Constitution. Ironically, the amendment LaRose wants that would make it harder to pass voter-initiated amendments falls into that latter, easier-to-pass category.

LaRose’s stated reason why citizens should lose some of their ability to change the Ohio Constitution: It’s badly needed to protect against wealthy interest groups that want to insert self-serving measures into what LaRose called “the state’s founding document.”

“If someone is a special interest and they want to create a monopoly for themselves let’s say, or to try to do something that narrowly benefits their own interest, maybe it will make them think twice before they try to amend the Constitution,” LaRose said during a press conference on Nov. 17.

So how many times have such powerful special interests actually succeeded in initiating a harmful constitutional amendment?

LaRose didn’t cite any during his press conference. Instead, he said that of the 16 citizen-initiated amendments proposed in the past 22 years, just five have passed. And in response to a question, the secretary of state conceded that of the ones that passed, just two failed to get less than 60% of the vote.

LaRose’s office didn’t respond when asked for an example of a problematic amendment in the Ohio Constitution that his proposal would have prevented  — or to other questions for this story. But while he and his staff didn’t cite any such examples, there are some citizen-initiated amendments coming that LaRose and the state’s other Republican leaders may well oppose.

One is a measure that would amend the Ohio Constitution to protect abortion rights. 

When the U.S. Supreme Court in June overturned Roe v Wade, a 2019 law signed by Gov. Mike DeWine took effect. It outlawed the vast majority of abortions months earlier than they had been and almost immediately, horror stories started to pile up.

They include a 10-year-old and two other under-18 rape victims who couldn’t get abortions in Ohio; women with cancer who couldn’t get abortions in order to start chemotherapy; women whose fetuses couldn’t survive but still had to continue their pregnancies. The list goes on.

This month’s elections showed that in states where abortion was on the ballot, it proved to be a powerful motivator for supporters of abortion rights. And, with the Republican dominated legislature expected to pass even stricter restrictions, abortion-rights groups are planning to seek a voter-initiated amendment to protect those rights.

At the same time, LaRose’s fellow Republicans in 2021 and 2022 ignored voter-initiated amendments against gerrymandering that passed with more than 70% of the popular vote. The Republican-dominated Redistricting Commission drew state legislative maps that were rejected five times by the Ohio Supreme Court as unconstitutionally gerrymandered. LaRose sits on the commission and voted for each of the maps that have been declared unconstitutional by a bipartisan court majority.

GOP members of the commission complained that the changes the court was demanding were unconstitutional. That ignores the fact that it’s the job of the Supreme Court to decide what is or is not constitutional — not members of the executive and the legislative branches who were litigating a dispute before it. 

In April, LaRose told a group of Union County Republicans that he’d “be fine with” impeaching Republican Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor for voting with the court’s three Democrats to strike down the Republican-drawn maps. LaRose claimed O’Connor had violated her oath of office in ruling against his party. 

The Republicans succeeded in running out the clock and starting next year, the party’s representatives in the state legislature will continue to be wildly overrepresented compared to the partisan mix of the state as a whole. And they’ll be representing districts that are officially unconstitutional.

The chief justice, who is retiring, has said that citizens need to come up with new citizen-initiated amendments with fewer loopholes if Ohioans want to end extreme gerrymandering.

In his press conference last week, LaRose claimed that he’s not seeking to block amendments supporting abortion rights or ending gerrymandering. Such short-term goals weren’t good reasons for undertaking something as weighty as amending the Ohio Constitution, he said.

“If you’re going to amend the Constitution, you need to be thinking about the long term,” he said. “So anybody who’s thinking about shorter or transient goals in the next year or two or three years, that’s not what this kind of a change should ever be about.”

LaRose added, “If we’re talking about amending the Constitution probably for the rest of our lifetimes, that’s something that should be taken very seriously.”

But among the questions his office wouldn’t answer this week: Why — if this should be such a deliberative process — did he wait until late November to announce that he would try to ram the measure through in a weeks-long, lame-duck session with an eye toward getting it on the ballot in May? Only about five months would elapse between the time the public first learned of the proposal and when it could alter the state Constitution, as LaRose said, “probably for the rest of our lifetimes.”

In his press conference, LaRose denied that he was trying to hurry the measure through.

“I don’t think it’s a rush necessarily,” he said. “It’s an idea whose time has come.”

Ohio Democrats have denounced LaRose’s push as a “power grab.”

But at the same time he was proposing to make it harder for voters to change the Ohio Constitution, LaRose seemed to say he was doing it in support of democracy.

“That’s the beauty of this, is that all the power rests with the people of Ohio,” he said.