COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Ohio Republicans’ attempt to ask voters in an August special election whether to make it harder to amend the state constitution stalled again on Wednesday, leaving the fate of legislators’ controversial strategy down to the wire.
After hundreds of protesters poured into the Ohio Statehouse to oppose a lawmaker-led initiative requiring 60% of voter support to enact a constitutional amendment – as opposed to a simple majority of 50% plus one vote – a House committee expected to vote on a bill allowing them to pose that initiative in an August special election canceled its Wednesday meeting.
Now, the clock is ticking.
In order to send Ohioans to the ballot box in August, the 14-member House committee and the entire body of representatives must – within seven days – greenlight both measures, Senate Joint Resolution 2 and Senate Bill 92, and forward them to Gov. Mike DeWine’s desk for approval.
But it remains to be seen whether the measures will reach the finish line. Although a House committee on Tuesday voted 7-6 to approve SJR2, the 60% ballot initiative, House Speaker Jason Stephens has yet to signal his support for bringing the measures to the floor for a vote before the General Assembly’s May 10 deadline.
DeWine, on the other hand, expressed his support for signing SB 92 if the House approves it, he told NBC4 during an interview last Friday. The governor did not explicitly share his position on raising the threshold to change the state constitution.
“I think the best argument in favor of 60% is what we’ve seen many times,” DeWine told NBC4. “It is groups outside of Ohio spending millions and millions of dollars to try and engrave something in Ohio’s constitution. There’s a good argument, I think you could make, that the bar needs to be rather high to do that.”
Lawmakers’ consideration of the measures coincides with Ohioans for Reproductive Freedom’s signature-gathering efforts to enshrine abortion rights up to the point of fetal viability into the state constitution via the November ballot.
“If we save 30,000 lives as a result of spending $20 million (on an August election), I think that’s a great thing,” Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima) said last month.
Frank DiCarlantonio, a trustee of the Ohio Association of Election Officials, said holding an August election just months after the legislature voted to nix most of the late-summer voting would throw a wrench in the personal and professional lives of election workers across the state.
Given the back-and-forth nature of Ohio’s redistricting battle last year, DiCarlantonio said election officials were forced to navigate “impossible deadlines” in a year with three elections, a poll worker shortage and increasing harassment and threats from the public. Holding another low-turnout August election, he said, could drive more people out of the industry.
“At the end of the day, losing that institutional knowledge, forcing the same amount of staff to conduct one or more elections at the same time could lead to balls being dropped, it could lead to delays in voters receiving the information they need,” DiCarlantonio said.
Nearly 250 advocacy groups in the Buckeye State, including Ohio’s League of Women Voters, AFL-CIO and Fraternal Order of Police, have described the 60% initiative as an “unnecessary, unfair and undemocratic” proposal that dilutes the long-held concept of “one person, one vote.”
On Tuesday, Dorsey Hagar, executive treasurer-secretary of the Columbus Building Trades Union, told the House Constitutional Resolutions Committee that SJR 2 threatens his 18,000 union members who rely on the passage of bond issues that fund infrastructure projects – and subsequently trade workers’ jobs – in central Ohio.
“Our members want the freedom to make decisions that will affect their lives, and ballot initiatives allow them to exercise that freedom,” Hagar said.
The plan is unpopular among a bipartisan slate of former Ohio governors and attorneys general, too. Former Republican Governors Bob Taft and John Kasich, along with former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, have expressed their opposition to the move.
In a Monday letter, former Attorneys General Richard Cordray, Lee Fisher, Betty Montgomery, James Petro and Nancy Rogers said the state’s current process for enacting changes to the constitution – “though only rarely used” – has worked well for the past century.
“If the increase in the passing percentage had been in effect, many important amendments that are part of our political heritage would have failed, including the initiative and referendum, home rule, civil service reform, the Clean Ohio Fund, the Third Frontier Project, and other important bond issues to support economic development, conservation, and housing,” their letter read.
In addition to raising the threshold to 60%, SJR 2 would require signatures to be gathered from all 88 counties in Ohio – as opposed to the existing 44-county rule – to place a measure on the ballot. The resolution would also eliminate a 10-day cure period awarded to ballot initiative authors who initially fail to collect the required number of signatures.
A House session is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Wednesday, May 10, where Stephens may bring the measures to the floor for a vote.