In Columbus on Wednesday, state Sen. Rob McColley, R-Napoleon, and former state representative and Dispatch editor Mike Curtin debated Issue 1. This August, Ohio voters will weigh whether to make it more difficult to amend the state constitution.
McColley co-sponsored the legislation that sent the question to the ballot, and Curtin has been one of the loudest voices in opposition to the effort.
Sasquatch or sweetheart
The arguments on offer are likely familiar to those who have followed the supermajority question through the legislature. As he has before, McColley argued the proposal will “protect” the state’s superior legal document.
McColley singled out the 2009 casino amendment whose authors gave themselves a “sweetheart deal” by writing specific real estate parcels into the constitution that they already owned.
He argued Ohio is facing other interests as well who look at state law and think “I don’t like the fact that you enjoy this right, or that right that’s guaranteed under the Constitution.”
“Or in the case that we’ve seen with some of these things,” he went on, “I don’t like the fact that the legislature won’t allow me to operate a casino in this state, or I don’t like the fact that the legislature won’t pass a bill allowing recreational marijuana in this state.”
Curtin said those justifications don’t make sense.
“It’s a phantom, it’s sasquatch, it’s the boogeyman,” he said.
Curtin quoted McColley’s legislative testimony that the state constitution has been “easily influenced” by outside interests, and he then went on to recount the track record for citizen-initiated amendments. He noted in the last 15 years, 51 groups have tried. The Attorney General’s office shows 88 proposed ballot summaries, Curtin added, because the AG regularly rejects an organization’s first attempt.
“Over those 15 years, of those 51 separate groups, six were successful in placing proposed amendments on the ballot — six,” Curtin explained. “Of those six, three won and three lost. Of the three that won, Senator McColley and his party supported two of those three.”
“Three wins in 51 attempts for a batting average of 6%,” Curtin said. “Ladies and gentlemen, that is not a record of our Ohio constitution being ‘easily influenced by outsiders.’”
Abortion and the August election
McColley acknowledged Issue 1 has become conflated with abortion because of its appearance on the ballot three months ahead of a potential abortion rights amendment.
“For most of us, this isn’t just about abortion,” McColley insisted. He didn’t mention the numerous examples of lawmakers drawing an explicit connection between the supermajority proposal and undermining abortion rights.
He suggested the August timing was a coincidence.
“This has been something that we have been trying to do and discussing in a bipartisan fashion for the last 10-plus years,” McColley said. “Coalition building to get to 60% on an issue especially like this is difficult.”
Three-fifths of the lawmakers in both chambers must agree to put a question on the ballot. No Democrats supported the measure.
Curtin hammered on lawmakers for scheduling a special election “specifically designed to minimize the voter turnout.”
“There are many, many unprecedented things about this proposal,” Curtin said. “The most galling is scheduling this for August special election after they just voted last December to abolish all special elections in every case except for certified fiscal emergency.”
He argued reviving August elections to suit their needs was “cynical” and a “historic display of bad faith.”
“This is the most important proposed constitutional change in 111 years,” Curtin argued, “and the honorable tradition, respected by all of their predecessors, up until today, of seeking maximum voter participation on the most important issues facing us now is being tossed aside, it’s being thrown in the trash can.”
Issue 1 will not just impose a supermajority requirement for all future constitutional amendments, it also heightens the hurdles for simply getting on the ballot. Organizations would lose the existing “cure period” to gather additional signatures if their first submission falls short. They would also have to collect a minimum number from all 88 counties instead of the current 44 county requirement.
Organizers argue that final change will make citizen-initiated amendments a near impossibility.
Curtin argued the existing 44 county requirement is a big reason why only 6 of the 51 proposals in the last 15 years made the ballot. He pointed to Vinton County, Ohio’s smallest, with less than 13,000 residents. The state’s population is 11.8 million.
“One county representing 1/1000th of the population of Ohio will be able to veto what 99.99% of Ohioans in the other 87 counties would like a chance to vote on,” he explained.
“Let’s not pick on Vinton County,” Curtin went on. “Ohio has 26 counties with less than 40,000 residents. So, pick one — you could pick any county among those 26. That county with three tenths of 1% of the population, or less, would have effective veto authority over the other 87 counties.”
Curtin argued with an 88-county requirement, opposition groups would run “just say no” campaigns in small counties. They might go judge shopping in small jurisdictions hoping to invalidate enough petition signatures.
McColley pushed back forcefully on Curtin’s point about judges.
“I’m an attorney,” he said, “I practice in courts across Northwest Ohio, primarily in rural areas. Those judges are just as qualified and have just as much integrity as judges everywhere else.”
He also criticized the idea of small counties having a veto over proposals, suggesting there is in some sense a “minimalization of many other parts of the state and their role as Ohioans.”
The House Speaker and Senate President hail from counties with roughly 58,000 and 102,000 residents respectively, according to the 2020 census. Ohio’s largest county, Franklin, had a population of 1.3 million.
McColley, who is part of Senate leadership, represents 11 counties—more than any other senator. All but one of those counties had a population of less than 50,000.
Still, he insisted the requirement would deter “a small majority being able to strong arm the rest of the state. That’s the reason we put this in place, is to make sure that something has wide ranging support across the state of Ohio.”
This story was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.