Ohio House begins hearings to bring back August elections
An Ohio House committee took up two measures Wednesday aimed at re-establishing an August special election. Lawmakers eliminated nearly all such contests in the waning days of the last session, just a few short months ago.
But with an abortion amendment looking likely to appear on the November ballot, Republicans are pulling out all the stops in a bid to raise the threshold for constitutional amendments first.
That threshold resolution has already passed the Senate. If Republicans in the House can cobble together enough votes, voters will soon decide whether it should take a 60% supermajority to amend the state constitution. The two elections measures in the House would settle the question of when.
Non-sequiturs and counting noses
At the outset of Wednesday’s hearing, committee chair Rep. Bob Peterson, R-Washington Court House, admonished members and witnesses to stick the substance of the August election bills. Throughout the hearing he tried — valiantly — to maintain that separation, but it proved a losing effort.
In the end, the move to reinstate August elections has only arisen as an counterpart of the feverish bid to raise the constitutional threshold.
That became clear in the testimony offered by the bill’s sponsors and supporters. Instead of presenting a case for an August election’s necessity, they often offered non-sequiturs.
“Our hopes were to get SJR 2 or HJR 1 to the ballot in May, but things didn’t work out in time,” Sen. Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, argued.
Later, in a back and forth with Rep. Dani Isaacsohn, D-Cincinnati, Sen. Rob McColley, R-Napoleon, added that a May election would’ve been preferable “because it was already scheduled.”
“Did you know that we have an election scheduled already for November?” Isaachson asked.
Separately, McColley acknowledged the reasoning behind Republicans’ effort to bring back the August election date. Again, their logic boils down to a political calculation inextricable from raising the constitutional threshold.
“In order to get 60 votes for this, there are other considerations that needed to be made for enough members to get us over the 60-vote threshold I had to be on in August,” McColley explained.
Some members, notably former chair of the House constitutional resolutions committee, Scott Wiggam, R-Wayne County, flatly rejected allowing the constitutional threshold question on the same ballot as an abortion rights measure. In a letter for House Speaker Jason Stephens, after his ouster from the committee, Wiggam elaborated.
“If that initiative and HJR 1 were both to pass we could see the very real scenario of abortion on demand placed in Ohio’s constitution with a 50% plus 1 vote and then it be protected with the 60% threshold because of HJR 1’s passing,” he wrote. “It is well known that this scenario is not acceptable to the Republican Caucus.”
Democrats repeatedly hammered the sponsors about timing because August elections typically involve far lower voter turnout. In the most recent August election, turnout averaged just 8% statewide.
Rep. Susan Manchester, R-Waynesfield, however, argued back that low turnout isn’t “a forgone conclusion.”
She pointed to her own election in 2022.
“I’m proud to say that my district had the highest voter turnout in the entire state, and it was equal if not similar to what the turnout is during a November or May election.” Manchester argued. “So let’s not underestimate the voice of our citizenry and wanting to participate in this process.”
At best, however, Manchester’s boast is a bit of an exaggeration. The 18.23% turnout in Auglaize County in 2022’s August election was the most in the state, but it was not quite in line with prior elections. It was four percentage points behind the 2020 primary, marred by COVID-19 and more than eight percentage points behind the 2018 primary.
When it comes to general elections, the August 2022 turnout is a pittance. The 2022 general election saw 58.47% turnout — more than three times the turnout in August. In 2020, Auglaize turnout was nearly 80% and in 2018 it cleared 60%.
The problem, as critics of August elections — many of them Republicans — have consistently noted, is that the contests are an inconsistent grab bag of local issues like school or construction levies. They aren’t the sort of issues the average voter spends an enormous amount of time thinking about, and they come up at a time most voters aren’t thinking about heading to the polls.
To that end, Rep. Richard Brown, D-Canal Winchester, asked Manchester if she’d voted in any recent August elections. Manchester admitted she couldn’t recall. But aside from the 2022 primary, Auglaize County hasn’t had an August election in at least ten years.
Still, for all her optimism about turnout, even Manchester isn’t immune from sitting out a sleepy election or two. According to the Auglaize County board of elections, her even-year voting record is basically flawless, save missing a primary in 2014. But when it comes to odd-year elections where posts like city council, mayor and school board get decided, she’s only shown up once since casting her first ballot in 2006.
This story was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.