Ohio Republicans seek to raise ballot threshold ahead of abortion fight

Ohio Republicans are seeking to increase the threshold that proposed amendments must reach to be added to the state constitution, ahead of a likely fight over abortion rights that could make the ballot in coming years.
Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose speaks at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio, on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022, about a constitutional amendment that would prohibit noncitizen voting. (AP Photo/Julie Carr Smyth)

Ohio Republicans are seeking to increase the threshold that proposed amendments must reach to be added to the state constitution, ahead of a likely fight over abortion rights that could make the ballot in coming years.

Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) said Thursday he would back legislation introduced by state Rep. Brian Stewart (R) that would require new amendments to the constitution to win approval of 60% of voters, rather than a simple majority.

In a statement, LaRose said the process for amending the state constitution is being used to enshrine rights for special interest groups.

“The Ohio Constitution is supposed to serve as a framework of our state government, not as a tool for special interests,” LaRose said. “Requiring a broad consensus majority of at least 60% for passing a petition-based constitutional amendment provides a good-government solution to promote compromise.”

LaRose compared Ohio’s constitution, which runs more than 67,000 words long, to the U.S. constitution, which clocks in at 7,591 words.

Several other states, including Massachusetts, Illinois, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Nebraska, Mississippi, Wyoming and Florida, require proposed amendments to reach 60% of the vote to pass.

But opponents of the proposal said it would end a long history of citizen involvement in Ohio’s government.

“It’s been an incredibly important tool for Ohioans to use. This is really a power grab, and we’ve been seeing this all across the country,” said Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a progressive organization. “This is part of this larger story of who has a voice in our democracy and whether the people will be heard.”

Republican-controlled legislatures in several other states have moved in recent years to limit the power of citizen-initiated ballot measures. Voters in Arkansas and South Dakota defeated proposals to raise the threshold for ballot measures to 60%. Voters in Arizona raised the threshold to 60% specifically for ballot measures that would raise taxes.

In Ohio, the timing of the proposal strikes some opponents, as well. Just after midterm elections in which abortion rights advocates scored victories in ballot measures in liberal and conservative states alike, Ohio advocates floated a constitutional amendment that would enshrine reproductive rights in the state constitution.

“We recognize that it is not an if but a when that we believe it will be necessary to amend the constitution of the state of Ohio to guarantee reproductive freedom and access to an abortion,” said Kellie Copeland, executive director of Pro Choice Ohio. “We are doing our due diligence and strategizing very carefully.”

Copeland declined to discuss when abortion rights proponents would launch a ballot campaign. But she criticized the proposal to raise the threshold such a measure would have to clear to be added to the constitution.

“Republicans in the state of Ohio are clearly doing everything that they can to suppress the vote, to diminish the voice of Ohioans in their government,” Copeland said. “Those are moves of politicians and a political party that is no longer interested in serving Ohioans. They’re more interested in ruling us.”

Ohio voters have approved five constitutional amendments in the last two decades. Another 11 have gone down to defeat.

In 2019, two of those proposed constitutional amendments — one that would have legalized recreational marijuana and one that would have changed rules around short-term lending — attracted millions in spending from corporate interests. Both failed at the ballot box.

LaRose also pointed to provisions of the constitution that deal with casino development, bond consolidation and health care access.

“If you have a good idea and feel it deserves to be within the framework of our government, it should require the same standard for passage that we see in both our United States Constitution and here in our own state legislature,” LaRose said.