Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose seems to be big mad at being called out for attacking Ohio voters’ democratic power at the ballot box, after leading a proposal to raise the threshold for amendments from 50% to 60%. State Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, has become the legislative sponsor for the scheme.
Because their arguments for attacking voters are so weak and misleading, and the arguments for protecting the power of voters so plentiful, it’s worthwhile to put them all in one place, going through each point one-by-one.
Let’s start with what I imagine they think is their strongest argument.
1. Other states either don’t allow citizen initiatives, or have a higher threshold than a simple majority
LaRose and Stewart have noted that in a majority of other states, citizens don’t have the power of initiatives that Ohio does. This is true. Ohio is one of only 19 legislatures (18 states and the Virgin Islands) that allows citizens to amend their constitutions.
If you view the various states as “laboratories of democracy” — a conception popularized by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in the case New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann — Ohio is presently a “laboratory” that bestows a great deal of trust in democracy to Ohio voters.
LaRose and Stewart are arguing to rip that away and make Ohio less democratic. How much less?
Of the states that allow citizens this power, only one state, Florida, currently requires 60% of the vote for any citizen-initiated amendment to pass.
When it comes to these voter powers, LaRose and Stewart are arguing to make Ohio among the most limited, instead of one of the most free and democratic.
No matter what holiday wrapping paper they want to dress this lump of coal in, fundamentally, Ohio’s chief elections officer and his lawmaker buddies are making an anti-democracy argument.
Why do they want to do this?
They claim it’s about long-term protection of the Ohio Constitution from special interests. Let’s take a look at that next.
2. Long-term protection from ‘special interests’
It scarcely gets more Orwellian than arguing that “protecting” the Ohio Constitution in the long-term means attacking the power of voters over the constitution for many decades to come.
This is a long-term assault on voters’ ability to protect our own constitution if we are suffering misrepresentation from our politicians.
Remember, sister and brothers, this is our constitution. It’s not “the” Ohio Constitution; it’s our Ohio Constitution.
So this is an enormously consequential attack that, if successful, will fundamentally reshape our authority as Ohio voters to act as a check on our state government for likely the rest of our lifetimes.
Since 1912, when Ohio voters called a constitutional convention and awarded ourselves the power of ballot initiative, constitutional amendments have been proposed by citizens 71 times, with 19 amendments approved and 52 rejected.
As WSYX’s Darrel Rowland notes, “using a 60% threshold for citizen-initiated proposals would have stopped just two issues since 1950 — 72 years.” Those two issues were raising the minimum wage and allowing casinos to operate in Ohio.
In fact, Rowland also notes, Ohio voters even amended our constitution in 2015 to specifically bar moneyed special interests from creating monopolies for themselves within it.
In short, every bit of evidence shows Ohio voters being incredibly responsible with our authority.
Nevertheless, Stewart argues, “We have repeatedly watched as special interests buy their way onto the statewide ballot and then spend millions of dollars drowning the airwaves to secure fundamental changes to our state by a vote margin of 50% plus one vote.”
For now, let’s take them at their word that their concern really is “special interests,” and ignore the fact that there are many citizen- , corporate- , and advocate group-special interests, some aligned with Republicans, others aligned with Democrats, and yet others aligned with neither.
If the problem is special interests, why are they attacking voters and not special interests?
Lawmakers could target the requirements to get an initiative on the ballot. They’re not. Instead they’re targeting voters’ ability to pass proposals.
By not going after special interests directly, and instead attacking voters, this proposed amendment would actually all but guarantee that only the most moneyed special interests would have the resources to advocate and pass initiatives under the new threshold — a 20-point spread.
In other words, this proposal awards even more advantage to big dollar special interests and hurts citizen-led grassroots initiatives the most. It extends the already enormous reach of Big Money in American politics, at the expense of voters.
Defending this attack on voters, in testimony last week Stewart said, “We’re not trying to make amending the Constitution impossible. We’re simply trying to require that you — in a diverse state of 11-plus million people — that you get more than 50% of the 25% that might show up to vote in a sleepy May primary.”
The gag is that citizen-led amendments are not allowed to appear on “sleepy May primary” ballots. They must appear in November general elections.
Only lawmaker-brought amendments are allowed to appear in a “sleepy May primary,” which is exactly where LaRose and Stewart are trying to place this critical change to the Ohio Constitution.
In fact, the last time a constitutional question was put to voters during a primary in an odd-numbered year was 1973.
It appears this accusation by Stewart of deviously trying to secure fundamental changes to the Ohio Constitution from a minority of voters in a low-turnout May election is not only impossible to do using citizen initiatives, but an admission of Republican lawmakers’ own machinations. At the very least, it tilts their hand that this is the way they think.
It also comes at a time where one former Ohio House Speaker, Larry Householder, faces a felony racketeering trial in January for a $1.3 billion energy bailout/$61 million political bribery scheme; another who resigned amid a criminal investigation of his financial relationships with payday lending lobbyists; and after Ohio public schools were ripped off by up to $600 million by a private for-profit charter operation dreamed up on a Waffle House napkin by a major Republican donor.
If Ohioans need protection from special interests, it’s not Ohio voters enabling them, but Ohio lawmakers continually being bought and sold by one special interest after another.
3. A bipartisan committee of the 2017 Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission supported raising the threshold
LaRose and Stewart have focused on the fact that a 2017 Constitutional Modernization sub-committee supported raising the threshold to pass Ohio Constitutional amendments, but their argument attempts to skate over two critical facts:
- The committee’s suggestion for raising the threshold was explicitly connected to another suggestion to make it easier for citizens to change Ohio law; and,
- The committee suggested raising the threshold to 55%, not 60%.
The sub-committee’s work was also never agreed upon by the full commission as the 10-year commission in question was actually abolished four years early by Ohio Republicans.
Cleveland.com reported at the time of its disbandment that the commission was “far more partisan and controlled by lawmakers than a similar effort in the 1970s, which was deemed a success.”
Yet Stewart is now claiming that commission’s work was sufficient so he apparently thinks there’s no reason to do any more due diligence now.
He also seems to entirely ignore the fact that the main thrust of the full commission’s recommendations were to repeal obsolete provisions in the constitution, as “distrust between Republican and Democratic lawmakers led several discussions to break down along party lines,” and there was “little hope its members could agree on weighty issues such as redistricting or citizen ballot initiatives.”
Repealing the obsolete provisions would reduce the size of the constitution by 20%, the commission estimated. If the state constitution is too long and cumbersome, as they’ve claimed, why not start there? Why attack voters?
With regard to initiatives, the concern of the committee was that citizens are dissuaded from initiating changes more appropriate to statute than the constitution because citizen statutes can simply be overturned by the legislature.
Instead, citizens are incentivized to seek out remedy in the Ohio Constitution because that can’t be changed so easily by illegally gerrymandered lawmakers.
This is why changing the threshold for constitutional amendments can not be separated from addressing that problem.
As former state Rep. Mike Curtin, a member of the committee, told Rowland, “It was designed to be a two-part package. It never would’ve been advanced as one piece without the other piece.”
In an interview with the Statehouse News Bureau’s Jo Ingles, Curtin said the resolution being considered now is an example of bad faith and abuse of power.
“It’s a monumental abuse of power for the supermajority that controls the legislature in lame-duck session to rush something to the May primary ballot in an odd-numbered year, without full public participation and full public debate,” he said.
Frank LaRose and Brian Stewart have launched a frontal assault on voters’ ability to amend our state constitution, and are indeed putting their knives at the neck of 110 years of citizen-led democratic progress.
Republicans control every statewide administrative office including governor, secretary of state, attorney general, auditor, and treasurer, as well as both the Ohio House and the Ohio Senate under supermajority gerrymanders, and a majority on the Ohio Supreme Court.
Ohio Republicans, including LaRose himself, defied a bipartisan majority on the Ohio Supreme Court seven times to force Ohio voters to cast ballots in unconstitutionally gerrymandered Statehouse and U.S. Congressional districts, increasing the GOP’s illegally gerrymandered supermajorities by three seats in the Ohio House and one in the Ohio Senate.
As far as how sacred the Ohio Constitution is to them: Voters approved constitutional redistricting reform for Statehouse districts in 2015 with more than 71% support, and for U.S. Congressional districts in 2018 with nearly 75%, yet LaRose and his fellow Republicans ignored the state’s highest court and the rule of law that lawmakers themselves wrote for the Ohio Constitution to instead illegally gerrymander Ohio once again.
Redistricting reform advocates horrified by Ohio Republican lawlessness on gerrymandering are now looking to bring a new citizen-initiative to the ballot.
In 2022, citizens protected access to abortion health care with 59% in Kansas, 52% in Kentucky, 56% in Michigan, and 52% in Montana.
Now LaRose and Stewart want to make Ohio’s threshold 60%, after Ohio made national headlines for forcing a 10-year-old rape victim to flee the state for abortion care due to Ohio’s extremist abortion ban.
With GOP lawmakers continuing to create extremist laws that polls show strong majorities of Ohioans don’t want, for voters to relinquish their own last remaining check — the power of a popular majority of voters themselves — would be insane.
David DeWitt has more than 15 years experience covering Ohio government, politics and policy, including education, health care, crime and courts, poverty, state and local government, business, labor, energy, environment, and social issues. He has worked for the National Journal, The New York Observer, The Athens NEWS, and Plunderbund.com. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and is a board member of the E.W. Scripps Society of Alumni and Friends. He can be found on Twitter @DC_DeWitt.
This commentary was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.