David Leist of Columbus (left), a field organizer for Ohio Citizen Action, hands registered voter Richard Hall a flyer with information while canvassing against Ohio Issue 1 which if passed at the Aug. 8 special election would require a 60% vote to pass future citizen-initiated amendments, including the Reproductive Freedom Amendment, which will be on the ballot in November, on uly 25, 2023, in a neighborhood on the northeast side of Columbus. Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal
This story was produced by States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news organization.
CLEVELAND — Ohioans over the last century have used the state’s ballot initiative process to pass constitutional amendments that raised the minimum wage, integrated the National Guard and removed the phrase “white male” from the constitution’s list of voter eligibility requirements.
Now, lawmakers want to make it much tougher for an initiative to be approved. Opponents of the effort, who are leading in the polls, say doing so would undermine democracy. Whoever prevails, the verdict could reverberate far beyond the Buckeye State, as other states also eye limits on ballot initiatives.
Since mid-July, Ohioans have been voting on a new ballot measure, drafted by the Republican-controlled legislature and known as Issue 1, that would require future initiatives to be approved by 60% of voters, rather than the simple majority needed now. Also, starting on Jan. 1, 2024, the measure would mandate that, to get an issue on the ballot in the first place, backers gather signatures in all 88 Ohio counties, double the 44 now needed.
GOP lawmakers and their supporters say it’s too easy for out-of-state interests to use the initiative process to change the state’s constitution. Among other examples, they point to a 2009 ballot measure that legalized casino gambling in the state, which passed with 52% of the vote after national gambling interests spent over $50 million in support.
States Newsroom partnered with News 5 Cleveland to meet the organizers and canvassers on the ground. The team spent one day with opponents of Issue 1 and the next with supporters.
“We believe that a 60% threshold is absolutely critical to protecting our constitution from these outside influences,” state Sen. Jerry Cirino, a Republican, said in an interview at the headquarters of the Lake County GOP in Painesville, about 30 miles east of Cleveland.
And, though it isn’t a message they emphasize publicly, Republicans also have said that they want to make it easier to stop a measure to protect reproductive rights that will be on the ballot in November.
“After decades of Republicans’ work to make Ohio a pro-life state, the Left intends to write abortion on demand into Ohio’s Constitution,” Rep. Brian Stewart, a leader of the push for Issue 1, wrote in a letter to colleagues in December. “If they succeed, all the work we accomplished by multiple Republican majorities will be undone.”
“Some people say this is all about abortion,” Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, said in May, in a video obtained by News 5. “Well, you know what? It’s 100% about keeping a radical pro-abortion amendment out of our constitution.”
LaRose, who for months had denied that Issue 1 was about abortion, added that the higher threshold for approval also would be useful down the road to combat other “dangerous plans” from “the left,” including raising the minimum wage and legalizing marijuana.
Power grab seen
Opponents of Issue 1 — a coalition of over 200 groups — call it a brazen power grab by the legislature that threatens Ohio’s democracy.
With state lawmakers entrenched in power in Columbus thanks to gerrymandered maps, opponents argue, the ballot initiative process is the last meaningful avenue left for ordinary Ohioans to effect change. Issue 1 would raise the costs both of the signature-gathering process, by making organizers hire canvassers in all 88 counties rather than just half, and of the campaign itself, by requiring that 60% of voters approve. The result would be to make ballot initiatives usable only by deep-pocketed special interests, opponents say.
And, they add, it would threaten the principle of one person, one vote by allowing just 40% of voters plus one to override the clear will of the people.
“Issue 1 would end majority rule as we know it,” Jen Miller, the executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, told a raucous crowd at a July 20 rally for the “No” campaign at a union hall in Boardman, just outside Youngstown.
Opponents also accuse the GOP of trying to sneak the measure through by setting an Aug. 8 election date — a time when politics is the furthest thing from many voters’ minds — to depress voting rates, since lower turnout is often thought to help Republicans. In last year’s August primaries, turnout dropped to a meager 8%.
Still, the early signs suggest that turnout will be strong.
In the first 13 days of early voting, 231,800 Ohioans voted in person, according to numbers released July 28 by the secretary of state’s office. That’s a higher rate of votes per day than the 136,000 people who voted in person during the first nine days of early voting for last November’s high-profile and competitive U.S. Senate race.
However voters come down, other states will be watching closely.
From Arizona to the Dakotas to Florida, legislators are working to make it harder to get initiatives passed into law, or on the ballot at all. In doing so, they’re taking aim at a form of direct democracy that’s emerged in recent years as a favorite tool of advocates looking to enact popular policies — on issues from health care to the minimum wage to democracy reform — that elected politicians have failed to prioritize.
Sarah Walker, the policy and legal advocacy director for the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which works to support progressive ballot measures, said she views the push to restrict ballot initiatives as closely tied to higher-profile efforts, in some states, to tighten voting laws in what voter advocates have called suppression.
“It’s ultimately another step on the road towards authoritarianism and towards consolidated power,” said Walker. “And what happens in Ohio is going to shape … whether or not these attacks on direct democracy are going to continue.”
Ballot initiatives grow popular
Ballot initiatives have found themselves in state lawmakers’ crosshairs just as they’ve become a key method to subvert those lawmakers’ power.
A quarter-century ago, conservatives started using the initiative process — which exists in about half of all states — to make gains they were unable to achieve through legislation, on issues from voter ID to criminal justice to same-sex marriage.
In Ohio, a 2004 gay marriage ban put on the ballot by GOP lawmakers — reportedly at the urging of top White House political strategist Karl Rove — was credited with super-charging conservative turnout, helping President George W. Bush win the state, and with it, reelection.
But after Republicans took full control of a slew of state governments in 2010, the shoe switched to the other foot.
Shut out of state capitols, progressives in many states poured resources into the ballot initiative process, which they’ve used throughout the last decade — including in deep-red states like Utah, Idaho, Kansas, and Arkansas — to expand access to Medicaid, protect abortion rights, boost the minimum wage, establish paid sick leave, reform the redistricting process, liberalize voting rules, legalize marijuana and more.
In some states where Republican legislators have little fear of losing their majorities, the ballot initiative process has become their opponents’ most significant check on lawmakers’ power.
The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center counts 76 state bills introduced this year that would make the initiative process harder to use — often by creating tougher signature requirements or by raising the threshold for approval, the two methods used by Issue 1.
Last fall, Arizona voters approved two measures, both backed by the legislature, that restricted the initiative process. Voters rejected a third, further-reaching measure that would have rendered the process all but moot by letting lawmakers amend or repeal initiatives already passed by voters.
Arkansas this year raised the number of counties where initiative supporters must gather signatures from 15 to 50. North Dakota voters will weigh in on a measure next year that would amend the constitution by raising the threshold for initiatives to 60%.
And in 2020, Florida imposed tougher signature-gathering requirements for the initiative process — a response in part to the passage in 2018 of a measure re-enfranchising people with past convictions, which the legislature had already weakened via legislation.
Some of these efforts have failed. South Dakota voters in June 2022 rejected a bid by the legislature to raise the threshold for ballot measures to 60% — which one top lawmaker acknowledged was aimed at foiling a measure on the November ballot to expand Medicaid. (The Medicaid expansion ultimately passed with 56% of the vote.)
And in Missouri, legislation that would have required ballot initiatives to gain 57% approval passed the House but died in the Senate in May. Republicans, who control state government, have vowed to try again next year. As in Ohio, lawmakers have said they want to stop an abortion rights measure, which could be on the 2024 ballot in the state.
“There is a common thread between all these efforts,” Elena Nunez, the director of state operations at Common Cause, told reporters. “They are responses to people using the ballot measure process to address the important issues of the day — things like economic justice, democracy and voting rights, and reproductive health.”
Nunez added: “We are seeing states where the legislature is not only not doing that — they are taking efforts to make sure that the people themselves can’t do it either.”
Ohio’s Issue 1 popped up because of one reason: abortion.
When swing states started enshrining abortion access into their constitutions in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling striking down Roe v. Wade, Ohio reproductive-rights groups jumped on board. They organized a November ballot measure to do the same for their state.
In May, the Republicans who control the Ohio Statehouse responded by passing a joint resolution to put their own measure, Issue 1, on the ballot. As legislators voted, hundreds of protestors, including law enforcement, union workers and nurses, demonstrated outside the chambers.
The resolution called for an August special election, meaning that if Issue 1 passed, the abortion rights measure in November would need to win 60% of the vote.
That threshold could well be the difference between victory and defeat. Of the six abortion-rights ballot measures to have been held since Roe was struck down, four — those in Kentucky, Montana, Michigan, and Missouri — have passed with between 52 and 59 percent of the vote. Only in deep-blue Vermont and California did they win over 60%.
But there was one problem with lawmakers’ plan. Back in December, they had passed a bill to eliminate the vast majority of August special elections, which have an abysmal turnout rate and cost $20 million. A coalition of Issue 1 opponents filed a lawsuit in the Ohio Supreme Court challenging the August special election date, citing the recent change in law. In 1897, they noted, the Ohio Supreme Court stated that the legislature couldn’t amend statutes by passing joint resolutions.
The court’s Republican majority allowed the election to move forward, finding that the legislature could override itself to set an election date.
Proponents of Issue 1 say they want to stop wealthy special interests from coming into the state. But the effort is being bankrolled in part by Richard Uihlein — an out-of-state billionaire and a major supporter of groups that helped organize the rally on Jan. 6, 2021 that led to the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — who gave over $4 million to a pro-Issue-1 PAC Protect Our Constitution.
Newly filed campaign finance documents reveal that the PAC has raised about $4.8 million. Uihlein’s donations have been 82% of the group’s total support. But out-of-state interests aren’t just funding the vote yes side.
One Person One Vote, the anti-Issue 1 PAC, has raised more than $14.8 million, according to the filings. The largest lump sum was $1.8 million from the Tides Foundation, a progressive social advocacy charity based in California. In total, 83% of the funds raised by the vote no campaign have also been from out-of-state interests. However, these include national organizations that have chapters in Ohio, like the National Education Association.
Some of the ads run by Issue 1 supporters have been called misleading. One declares: “Out-of-state special interests that put trans ideology in classrooms and encourage sex-changes for kids are hiding behind slick ads.” Neither the abortion-rights measure nor any other potential Ohio ballot measure in the works relates to trans issues.
LaRose, too, has received criticism for campaigning energetically for Issue 1 while being responsible for overseeing the vote in an unbiased way as the state’s top elections official. In July, he also announced his campaign for the U.S. Senate, in a competitive Republican primary.
“We don’t expect, especially this close to the election, for the secretary of state to be out there as the chief cheerleader of Issue 1,” Catherine Turcer of Common Cause Ohio told News 5 recently.
A spokesperson for LaRose did not respond to a request for comment at that time.
Polling favors opponents
A Suffolk University/USA Today poll released July 20 found that 57% of registered Ohio voters oppose Issue 1, while 26% support it, with 17% undecided.
That has some Issue 1 opponents talking about triumphing by a margin large enough to make a statement to the legislature.
“I don’t want to just win this, I want to win this big,” Jaladah Aslam, an organizer with the Ohio Unity Coalition, a civil rights group, told the crowd at the Boardman rally. “I want to send a message to them to stop messing with us.”
Getting the resounding victory they want will depend on how effectively Issue 1’s opponents can mobilize their voters. By July 28, the campaign said it had knocked on over 63,000 doors and participated in more than 15,000 conversations since May.
“Overwhelmingly, folks who know about the issue are excited to vote no or they’ve already voted no,” said Tatiana Rodzos, an organizer for Ohio Citizen Action, a progressive group playing a leading role in the “No” effort.
As he went door-to-door on a recent afternoon in Westlake, a Cleveland suburb, Mike Todd found plenty of potential voters who didn’t know about the election.
“It’s kind of voter education,” said Todd, the field director for OCA. “Making sure folks are aware that there’s even an election going on in August.”
States Newsroom and News 5 followed as Todd went door-to-door on a recent afternoon in Westlake, a Cleveland suburb. Plenty of potential voters said they didn’t know much about the election.
At each door, Todd introduced himself and described the measure as a threat to majority rule that would take power away from regular Ohioans and give it to politicians. Most people promised to study the literature he left and consider the issue.
Playing a key role in the “No” campaign are progressive organizations who may look to use the initiative process to advance their issues. That means not only reproductive-rights groups, but also workers’-rights advocates pushing to raise the minimum wage, anti-gerrymandering activists who want to reform redistricting, and more.
One Fair Wage is collecting signatures for a possible 2024 ballot measure that would boost Ohio’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, from the current $10.10, by 2026. On a recent afternoon, Barry Goldberg, a canvasser for the group, was asking for signatures on a busy shopping street in Cleveland Heights, a small city just outside Cleveland.
If passers-by agreed to sign — and most registered Ohio voters did — Goldberg would then tell them about the election for Issue 1, explaining that it would make it harder to pass initiatives like the minimum-wage measure. He asked them to write their contact information on a separate sheet so that organizers could get them to the polls.
Goldberg said the current rules make it challenging enough to gather the signatures needed to get an issue on the ballot through the initiative process. In the 44 counties required, organizers must get signatures from registered voters numbering at least 5% of the county’s total vote in the last gubernatorial election.
Having to gather signatures in all 88 counties?
“That would kill nearly every ballot initiative before it started,” Goldberg said. “All it would take is someone with a million dollars who didn’t like a bill to just dump money into a handful of counties, and do everything they can to make it harder to get signatures. Something could be wildly popular, and still not even get (on the ballot).”
Making change difficult
But Issue 1 supporters say trying to change the state’s founding documents should be difficult.
“If a constitutional issue is significant enough to impact all 11.8 million Ohioans, then it should have to garner and demonstrate broad statewide backing for consideration,” the Ohio Restaurant Association and other business groups who oppose a minimum-wage hike said in a May statement backing Issue 1.
Cirino, the Republican senator, agrees.
“The U.S. Constitution has very stiff requirements in order to make amendments,” he said. “The founding fathers designed it that way, so that the Constitution could not be changed on a willy-nilly basis.”
“Yes” campaign leaders have mostly tried to publicly downplay the role of abortion in the effort. But it wasn’t hard to find Ohioans who cited the issue to explain their support for Issue 1.
“The driving force for us to be here was the abortion issue,” said Bob Dlugos, a local voter who stopped in to the Lake County GOP headquarters with his wife to pick up a lawn sign. “I do not want abortion to go up to the date of birth,” said Dlugos. “So that 60% vote is crucial.”
In fact, the proposed abortion-rights ballot measure would allow for abortion to be banned “after fetal viability,” unless a pregnant patient’s life or health were at risk.
But Cirino said passing Issue 1 would have a positive impact beyond abortion.
“Minimum wage, recreational marijuana — there will be other things,” he said. “If organizations realize that they can easily get into the Ohio Constitution with a 50%-plus-one majority, they’re going to be flocking to the state of Ohio to get things done that way.”
And Cirino suggested that making direct democracy too easy undermines the whole idea of representative government.
“Legislators — we are all elected by the people,” he said. “We speak for the people. We are up for election every two years in the House, in the Senate every four years.
“So that gives the people an opportunity to express their views to the legislators,” Cirino continued. “And then we can act accordingly, in their best interests.”
But Issue 1 opponents say that because lawmakers have used the redistricting process to ensure they’ll stay in power, that system isn’t working.
“We’re living under gerrymandered maps,” Mia Lewis, the associate director of Common Cause Ohio, told reporters recently. “There’s super-majorities in both chambers … one party controls the Ohio Supreme Court, and all statewide elected positions. But it’s not enough. They actually want to take away the citizens’ last meaningful way to have their voices heard.”
Although polling has favored vote no, and so has the sharp increase in absentee ballots, this election will most likely come down to one thing: voter turnout.
When it comes to Republicans, state data shows they went out to vote twice the amount as Democrats in the 2022 primary. This provides some comfort for Cirino. But Rodzos says he is in for a shock.
“It’s just really motivating to think that supporters of Issue 1, they don’t see that we can do this — but we’re going to do it,” the vote no advocate said. “The energy is there, the excitement is there and the anger is there.”
Until Aug. 8, advocates will continue knocking.
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