Watch the Ohio Issue 1 debate in the player above.

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – With two weeks to go until the August special election, lawmakers and policy experts on both sides of the election’s singular issue went toe-to-toe Tuesday night.

Colleen Marshall and Matt Barnes moderated a live, one-hour debate on Issue 1 that originated from the studios of NBC4/WCMH-TV in Columbus and was broadcast on air and online across Ohio: WJW-TV in Cleveland, WDTN-TV in Dayton, WKBN-TV/WYTV-TV in Youngstown, WTRF-TV in Wheeling, West Virginia/Steubenville, Ohio, and WOWK-TV in Charleston/Huntington, West Virginia.

Issue 1 would enact stricter requirements for citizen-proposed constitutional amendments to make it to voters’ ballots and become law. Secretary of State Frank LaRose and Ohio Right to Life President Mike Gonidakis argued in support of the issue. House Minority Leader Allison Russo and former Columbus Dispatch editor and state lawmaker Mike Curtin argued against. 

If passed, Issue 1 would require all future constitutional amendments to win at least 60% of the vote to pass instead of the simple majority currently needed.

To get an initiative on the ballot, groups would have to collect signatures from 5% of registered voters in all 88 Ohio counties, an increase from the current 44-county requirement. An existing 10-day curing period for groups who did not gather enough valid signatures would be eliminated.

Ohio voted in 1912 to establish the path for citizens to amend the constitution. Since then, voters have passed 20 citizen-initiated amendments, including to raise the minimum wage, establish casinos in certain cities and enshrine additional rights for crime victims.

Meet the panelists

Sec. of State Frank LaRose

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose is one of Issue 1’s most prominent supporters, championing the issue as a way to protect Ohio’s constitution from out-of-state special interests. He’s served as the state’s top election official since 2019, and before that was a state senator.

As an advocate for Issue 1, LaRose has told voters that enacting stricter requirements to amend the constitution preserves the integrity and purpose of Ohio’s main governing document. 

Like many Issue 1 supporters, he’s pointed to the U.S. Constitution’s stringent requirements – which set the bar even higher than the proposed amendment – as evidence that enacting a higher threshold is a commonsense safeguard against outside influence.

He also told supporters that Issue 1 is “100%” about blocking a proposed abortion rights amendment that will be on November ballots. 

Mike Gonidakis

Mike Gonidakis is president of the Ohio Right to Life and an ardent supporter of Issue 1. 

Like LaRose, Gonidakis has argued that Issue 1 protects the state constitution and also protects “Midwestern values” and Ohioans’ “way of life.”

Gonidakis, like the overall campaign for Issue 1, has advocated for the issue with eyes toward November, when an initiative to enshrine abortion rights in Ohio’s constitution will appear on ballots. Abortion and other issues, he’s argued, should be relegated to the legislature to enact via statute instead of by constitutional amendment. 

Gonidakis previously told NBC4 that the “silent majority is with” Issue 1 supporters and will vote in droves on Election Day.

House Minority Leader Allison Russo

House Minority Leader Allison Russo (D-Upper Arlington) is a three-term state representative and, like her political party, strongly opposes Issue 1.

Russo has called Issue 1 “unpopular, undemocratic (and) unnecessary,” arguing the 60% threshold amounts to establishing minority rule in the state. It’s a bad-faith attempt, Russo has said, to further cement Republican lawmakers’ governing power.

Like supporters of Issue 1, Russo has also linked the August special election to the abortion rights amendment voters will decide on in November. 

She has pointed to the fact that Republican officials, including LaRose, previously disavowed most August special elections as wastes of taxpayer money and election boards’ time. To flip so quickly is evidence that Issue 1 is not driven out of genuine concerns about the constitution’s integrity, she has argued.

Mike Curtin

Mike Curtin was editor of the Columbus Dispatch for more than 30 years, after which he served two terms as a Democrat in the Ohio House of Representatives.

While in office, Curtin led an initiative to block proposed constitutional amendments that established monopolies or otherwise catered to special interests.

Curtin also served on the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission in the 2010s, which, among other things, recommended raising the passing threshold from a simple majority to 55% for citizen amendments and requiring amendments be on ballots only in even years due to higher turnout.

In op-eds, forums and on radio shows, Curtin has argued that Ohioans have used the initiated amendment process responsibly, and current requirements sufficiently protect the state constitution.