Ohio constitution overhaul faces deadline, backlash

Members of the Ohio House Constitutional Resolutions Committee hear opponent testimony Tuesday, May 2, 2023, at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio, on a resolution that would seek voter approval for requiring a 60% supermajority vote on all future amendments to the Ohio Constitution. (AP Photo/Julie Carr Smyth)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — An effort by a Republican faction in Ohio to make it harder to change the state constitution faces a critical juncture Wednesday, with action needed in the politically fractured Ohio House where the undertaking has so far stalled.

Wednesday is the last day to get the job done if lawmakers mean to put a related ballot measure before voters on Aug. 8, according to the timeline determined by Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose, the state’s elections chief. However, a bill creating that election fizzled last week in a House committee and another panel agreed Tuesday to remove that date from the resolution, another convoluted twist to an already complicated debate.

“I think there are a lot of ‘ifs’ on this question, right?” Republican House Speaker Jason Stephens told reporters after the committee vote. “It should be a lively conversation.”

The Ohio back-and-forth comes amid similar Republican efforts to restrict direct democracy in Missouri, North Dakota and Mississippi, according to Fairness Project, a Washington-based group that pushes ballot measures across the U.S.

In Ohio, a pressure campaign of intense lobbying and attack ads is being led by the anti-abortion Ohio Right to Life, while opposition from high-profile Ohio political figures and public outcry escalate.

Potentially at stake are the future of abortion access in the state, as well as the legality of marijuana, the minimum wage, reform of Ohio's political map-making system and possibly limits on future vaccine mandates. All are subjects of burgeoning constitutional amendment campaigns.

The resolution up for a House vote Wednesday would send a proposal to the ballot requiring 60% of the Ohio electorate to pass all future constitutional changes. Passage of the proposal, ironically, would require merely the same 50%-plus-one simple majority that has been in place since 1912.

Abortion is legal in Ohio up to 20 weeks’ gestation because a court has blocked a near-ban on the procedure while a lawsuit unfolds. Abortion rights groups are working to put forward a ballot measure in November that would permanently enshrine a right to abortion in the state constitution.

Certain GOP lawmakers had been working to set a special election in August where voters could choose to curtail their own rights to bypass lawmakers on that and other subjects. Its backers argue publicly that the supermajority requirement will prevent deep-pocketed interest groups from targeting Ohio's founding document, but documents and other evidence have made clear that the push is aimed at tanking the abortion measure. AP VoteCast, an expansive survey of over 90,000 midterm election voters across the country, found 59% of Ohio voters say abortion should generally be legal.

So excruciating, convoluted and time-consuming has been the fight over the issue that it's begun to exhaust the state's ruling Republicans. GOP Gov. Mike DeWine even pledged to sign a bill creating an August election, despite acknowledging “it's inconsistent” with provisions of an election bill he just signed in January — if lawmakers would just get it to his desk.

“This just needs to move forward and be over with," he recently told reporters, “so we can be more focused on the state.”

Every day seems to bring another round of gamesmanship so complex that even those well versed in legislative rules are challenged to keep up. Can a chair really participate in an effort to defy his own committee? (Answer: The chair got the boot.) How many House votes are actually needed to send the 60% question to voters, given one lawmaker has died since the last election and another left for a new job? (Answer: Depends who you ask.)

Another example was a proposal to cut $20 million in funding for local election boards from legislation setting the August special election. For arcane procedural reasons, stripping the funding would have simplified the bill's trip to the House floor — though it also might have left already stressed local election offices without money to pay for the extra election. After days of behind-the-scenes wrangling, two committee hearings were canceled and the bill died.

Stephens now says that legislation was not even needed. Both the House and Senate resolutions advancing the 60% question to the ballot had the Aug. 8 election embedded in their wording. Tuesday's change would send the issue to the next regularly scheduled election. Such lawmaker-initiated ballot issues bypass the governor and go straight to the ballot.

Some of the state's most powerful anti-abortion and pro-gun rights groups — including Ohio Right to Life and the Buckeye Firearms Association — have tried to push the two measures through by linking the complicated web of related votes to their election-season scorecards. That means voting “no” on either measure threatens a Republican lawmaker's important “pro-life” and “pro-gun” voting records. Gun groups are involved because they fear a future constitutional amendment on gun control.

Besides that effort, the newly formed Save Our Constitution PAC is running attack ads against Republican House Speaker Jason Stephens and allied GOP lawmakers who have balked at one or both elements of the plan. The political action committee received $1.1 million from billionaire Richard Uihlein, a GOP megadonor from Illinois, an heir to the Schlitz Brewing Co. fortune and the PAC's only donor so far, The Columbus Dispatch reported. News of the donation raised eyebrows among opponents of the 60% measure, because a key argument among its proponents has been to keep “out-of-state special interests” from accessing Ohio's founding document.

The campaign against raising the constitutional amendment threshold has grown to include every living ex-governor of Ohio, five Republican and Democratic former state attorneys general and the Ohio Libertarian Party. A large bipartisan coalition of grassroots voting rights, labor, police, faith, civil rights and community organizations staged a protest last week, featuring hundreds of protesters marching around the Statehouse. They plan to return Wednesday.

LaRose, the highest-profile supporter of the supermajority threshold and a potential 2024 U.S. Senate candidate, says Wednesday is the deadline for legislative action. That's once state legal and constitutional requirements are applied to the envisioned August 8 election date, his spokesperson said.

Even Republican Senate President Matt Huffman, who also supports raising the threshold and spearheaded the August election idea, said last week that he cannot predict the House. “I really don't know what's going to happen,” he told reporters.