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.
Marilou Johanek is a veteran Ohio print and broadcast journalist who has covered state and national politics as a longtime newspaper editorial writer and columnist.
This commentary was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.