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

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.