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Deadline looming for Ohio House to pass constitutional amendment threshold, allow August election

Karen Kasler
Statehouse News Bureau
An opponent of HJR 1, the resolution to require 60% voter approval to amend the constitution, stands up to chide Republican state lawmakers before a vote on the resolution on April 19, 2023. The Ohio House Constitutional Resolutions Committee passed HJR 1, with all Democrats and Rep. Brett Hillyer (R-Uhrichsville) voting "no".

This week could be do-or-die for Ohio House Republicans, who must decide by Wednesday if they’ll ask voters to make it harder to amend the constitution in a statewide special election in August.

GOP lawmakers are down to the wire in their effort to put a nearly insurmountable roadblock in front of an abortion rights amendment expected this fall.

The effort started last November as Secretary of State Frank LaRose first brought forward increasing the voter approval threshold for constitutional amendments in November, along with fellow newly re-elected Republican Rep. Brian Stewart (R-Ashville).

“This is about trying to make the Ohio Constitution less susceptible to special interests. And if something has 60% of support, then it will pass,” LaRose said.

Both claimed that it was about protecting Ohio’s founding document from big money and out-of-state special interests. But in a letter to his Republican lawmakers that surfaced in December, Stewart made it clear that the main drivers were defeating abortion and gerrymandering amendments.

A resolution for a constitutional amendment proposed by state lawmakers needs a three-fifths majority from lawmakers but no signature from the governor. It stalled as the two-year session ended, but was revived in January.

This time, it would require that the hundreds of thousands of needed signatures would have to come from voters in all 88 counties, not just half as is the case now, and the 10 day "cure" period to turn in extra signatures if the first submission falls short would be eliminated.

Supermajority Republicans weren’t able to get the 60% threshold before voters in the May primary, which had to happen by early February. Then two groups working on a reproductive rights and abortion access amendment teamed up to try to make this November’s ballot.

That sparked Republicans to propose creating an August special election for the 60% threshold vote – which was a flip from Republicans’ view from December, when most August elections were eliminated because of high costs and low turnout. On March 23, Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill), who was elected House speaker with the support of Democrats who oppose the 60% proposal, was cool on that.

“We just voted to not have those anymore just a few months ago," Stephens said, referring to HB 458, which went into effect April 7. "And the county election officials I've talked to are not interested in having it. I'm frankly not interested in having an election in August."

But a week later he backtracked a bit, saying it was "a possibility."

The resolution and the August election are supported by anti-abortion and evangelical Christian groups, gun rights advocates and the Ohio Restaurant Association, which is concerned about a minimum wage amendment. Among the army of opponents are the bipartisan Ohio Association of Elections Officials, the Libertarian Party, five former state attorneys general from both parties and Ohio’s four living ex-governors, including Democrat Dick Celeste.

“I think it means you don't trust people. The irony is you want to put an issue on the ballot to increase the number of votes necessary to pass to 60%, and you want to pass it with 50%,” Celeste said in an appearance at the Columbus Metropolitan Club in April.

LaRose told lawmakers they need to pass the 60% resolution and the bill to create the August special election for a vote on that by Wednesday, May 10, which would be about 90 days before an August 8 statewide election date. Both have passed the Senate, and the resolution has passed a House committee. But the special election bill is still in committee, and it was set to be voted on last Thursday, the same day that hundreds of opponents descended on the Statehouse to protest.

The pressure has been on Stephens to call for a vote, and that’s included ads financed by a political action committee that’s funded almost exclusively by Richard Uihlein, a Republican billionaire megadonor from Illinois.

Stewart said the PAC proves the point backers have been making.

“I think frankly, this is kind of an example of what we're trying to address for the long term," Stewart said. "I would like to change this process so that we don't have this level of money being spent on constitutional amendments over and over and over again."

But there are holdouts in the House – and questions about how a 60% threshold could affect future amendments, such as one to ban mandatory vaccines, which some Republicans support.

Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, who’s strongly anti-abortion, said last month he’ll sign the special election bill if Republican lawmakers pass it.

“This is an absolute affront to our history here in Ohio," said Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, which is one of the most vocal critics of the plan. "It is undemocratic, its unnecessary, and we will prove that it's unpopular if this ends at the ballot box,” she said.

Meanwhile, abortion rights groups are still working to gather around 414,000 signatures by July 5 to put their issue on the ballot this fall.

Contact Karen at 614-578-6375 or at kkasler@statehousenews.org.