COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Ohioans will decide in November whether noncitizens should have a say in local elections.

On the ballot Nov. 8 is Issue 2, a proposed amendment to the Ohio Constitution that would prohibit local governments from allowing noncitizens to vote in municipal elections.

Supporters of Issue 2 say the amendment preserves the value of U.S. citizenship, but opponents say it’s an unnecessary, racially coded policy that could threaten the voting rights of some 17-year-olds who are currently eligible.

How Issue 2 made its way onto ballot

At the heart of Issue 2 is Yellow Springs, a Greene County village where city councilors adopted a charter amendment in 2020 to allow noncitizens to vote in the village’s elections, Council President Brian Housh said.

Of the 3,800 people there, nearly 30 are noncitizens, Housh said. They pay taxes, own businesses, and actively participate in council meetings.

“One of the individuals that could be enfranchised to vote works for our local paper,” Housh said. “They raise families in our community. I think that there’s great value in diversity around who is participating in local decision-making.”

Secretary of State Frank LaRose kiboshed the ordinance, ordering the county election board to reject noncitizen voter registrations, according to a news release from his office.

“A vote is a sacred right which many have fought and bled to protect – but only a right that is earned by birth or the oath of citizenship,” LaRose said. “American citizenship is precious. It has value and with it comes the right and responsibility of being a voter. I won’t tolerate any local government who tries to subvert our laws, devalue American citizenship and sew [sic] chaos in our elections.”

A future Secretary of State of Ohio, however, may not take the same position as LaRose, according to Aaron Ockerman, executive director of the Ohio Association of Election Officials. Issue 2 would change that, making LaRose’s directive law.

“The people that are proposing this are saying, ‘Well, there’s obviously a loophole. If local communities are doing this, we want to make it crystal-clear that that [LaRose’s directive] is, in fact, the case,” Ockerman said.

What proponents, opponents say 

Most Ohioans, or 59%, said in a recent Siena College poll they support Issue 2, with 38% of voters opposed.

Representatives with the Ohio Environmental Council Action Fund said in May that Issue 2 relies on “racially coded language” that targets immigrant communities and stokes irrational fear about voter fraud.

In 2021, LaRose said his office found 13 noncitizens who cast ballots in the 2020 election and another four in 2022. Widespread voter fraud, however, remains “exceedingly rare,” he said.

Proponents of Issue 2, like state Rep. Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati), called the move to permit noncitizens to vote locally a “disastrous” policy that degrades the value of U.S. citizenship.

“These fringe ideas from the East and West coasts have a way of filtering into the Heartland, so we are proactively seeking to curtail those novelties from ever gaining a foothold in the Buckeye State,” Seitz said in a news release.

Could Issue 2 wipe out 17-year-olds’ voting rights?

Critics of Issue 2 point to a technicality in the way the amendment is written. Issue 2 swaps out a word that opponents said could threaten lawmakers’ 2016 adoption of a statute guaranteeing the right to vote to 17-year-olds who turn 18 by the general election, said Steven Steinglass, dean emeritus at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.

Current Ohio ConstitutionOhio Constitution under Issue 2
Every citizen of the United States, of the age of eighteen years, who has been a resident of the state, county, township, or ward, such time as may be provided by law, and has been registered to vote for thirty days, has the qualifications of an elector, and is entitled to vote at all elections.”Only a citizen of the United States, who is at least 18 years of age and who has been a legal resident and registered voter for at least 30 days, can vote at any state or local election held in this state.”

The Ohio Constitution says “every citizen … who is 18” and registered to vote 30 days before the election is eligible. That language, Steinglass said, does not explicitly bar those younger than 18 from voting – a loophole that cleared the way for Ohio lawmakers to enfranchise some 17-year-olds via statute.

But if Issue 2 is ratified and Ohio law adopts the “only a citizen … who is 18” language, Steinglass and Rep. Mike Skindell (D-Lakewood) said it could nix the statutory law extending voting rights to some 17-year-olds by putting those rights at odds with the Ohio Constitution.

“The Ohio Constitution is primary over a statute,” Skindell said. “So a statute that conflicts with the constitution, the constitution wins.”

Steinglass said his same concern applies to Ohio’s voter registration deadlines, which require voters to register at least 30 days before the election. 

If Issue 2’s more constricting “only a citizen … who has been a legal resident and registered voter for at least 30 days” language becomes law, state lawmakers may no longer be able to adopt a statute extending or shortening that 30-day deadline, he said.

“Fifteen days, 20 days before an election – they would not be able to do that (under Issue 2),” Steinglass said.

But LaRose told an Ohio newspaper last week that he disputed that argument, saying Issue 2 is written nearly verbatim to what’s already in the constitution. No one has challenged Ohio’s statute permitting some 17-year-olds to vote, he said.