COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Ohio voters could be asked as early as August whether to raise the threshold for enacting a change to the state’s constitution.
Three months after state lawmakers nixed holding special elections in August, Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima) on Tuesday said his caucus is contemplating whether to bring back the late-summer voting to ask Ohioans to approve a measure requiring 60% voter support – as opposed to a simple majority of 50% plus one – to amend the state’s constitution.
“We have a lot of special elections in different times other than May and November,” Huffman said. “Of course, we’ve eliminated the August election as a recurring election, but we’re going to certainly look at that.”
Talk of placing House Joint Resolution 1, previously HJR 6, on an August ballot coincides with a plan to pose the abortion question before Ohio voters in November.
On Wednesday, the bill’s sponsor Rep. Brian Stewart (R-Ashville) fielded questions from members of the House Constitutional Resolution Committee, primarily from a slate of Democratic lawmakers who fervently denounced what they called an attempt to dilute the political power of individual Ohioans.
In addition to raising the threshold for amending the state’s constitution, HJR 1 requires signatures – needed to place an initiative on the ballot – be collected from all 88 counties in the state, doubling the 44-county requirement in Ohio law.
The resolution, nicknamed the Ohio Constitution Protection Act, would also eliminate a 10-day cure period awarded to ballot initiative authors who initially fail to collect the required number of signatures.
“If any outside group believes its idea is worthy of inclusion in Ohio’s constitution, then it should be able to receive the widespread support that a 60% vote margin requires,” Stewart said Wednesday. “Good ideas will pass.”
But Rep. Jessica Miranda (D-Forest Park) said it’s not up to the General Assembly to decide whether a ballot initiative is good policy. Ohio voters have amended the constitution with 50% support since 1912, she said, and changing that would subvert the rights of Ohioans to bypass their legislature.
“Who is he, Senate President Matt Huffman; who are you, Representative Stewart; and who is this body to tell the people of Ohio what is a good idea and what should pass and become a constitutional amendment?” Miranda asked Stewart on Wednesday.
Cleveland-area Democrat Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney took aim at Senate Republicans’ discussion about holding a special election to pose HJR 1 before voters in August.
In December, the same lawmakers passed a bill eliminating August special elections (except for U.S. House nominations) with some supporters citing the $25 million price tag attached to the state’s August 2022 special election where statewide turnout sat around 7%.
“Why do you think the General Assembly should have a special favor that we just took away from the people of Ohio?” Sweeney asked.
Stewart said he has not been a part of the conversations mulling whether to place HJR 1 on an August ballot, adding the timeline of that decision is “frankly above my pay grade.”
As for the potential costs to administer an August election, Stewart said the estimated $25 million is worth spending if it means protecting Ohio’s constitution from permanent changes effected by out-of-state and special interests. Plus, the price tag is a drop in the bucket compared with the $70 billion allocated in the state’s overall budget, he said.
The Democratic legislators at Wednesday’s hearing – and even Rep. Ron Ferguson (R-Wintersville) – posed another question to Stewart: “Wouldn’t it be contradictory to have HJR 1 pass with a simple majority on the ballot?”
Sweeney proposed requiring HJR 1 itself receive 60% of voter support to become law. But Stewart said “the law’s the law right now,” and until it is approved by Ohioans, proposed constitutional amendments – including HJR 1 – will adhere to a simple majority for passage.
“Ultimately, voters of Ohio are the ones to decide. If folks in the hallway think this is a bad idea, they can vote no, and if other folks think it’s a good idea, they can vote yes,” Stewart said, referring to the bill’s opponents who lined the hallway at the hearing.
Lawmakers must pass HJR 1 by May and call for a statewide special election in order to get it on the ballot in August.