Abortion Rights Effort Spurs Bid to Change Ohio Constitution (1)

  • Secretary of state wants special-election decision by May 10
  • Supporters argue special interests have had too much sway

(Updates the eighth paragraph with action delayed.)

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Republican lawmakers in Ohio, faced with the possibility that voters could enshrine abortion access in the state constitution, are trying to prevent that from happening by beating the reproductive rights activists to the polls.

They’re moving toward setting a special election for Aug. 8, when the electorate would be asked to make it harder for future constitutional amendment drives to succeed. It’s the latest in a series of ballot-box battles growing out of the US Supreme Court decision last year that overturned Roe v Wade.

If the voters agree in August, the new rules would be in place for the November election.

“We know that the whole August special election move, that’s about abortion. That’s about kneecapping the reproductive rights amendment for November,” said Collin Marozzi, deputy policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, which is involved in the proposed abortion-rights amendment.

A proposed ballot question (S.J.R. 2) already approved by the state Senate would ask that simple-majority adoption of constitutional changes be replaced with a 60% threshold.

At the same time, voters would be asked to impose a new requirement of valid signatures from at least 5% of voters in each county instead of half the counties. The measure also proposes getting rid of a 10-day period to gather additional signatures if there are issues.

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose is shown at a Nov. 4, 2022 campaign event in Moraine, Ohio.

Final legislative action on the proposed amendment and the measure to call a special election (S.B. 92) hasn’t been scheduled.

On Tuesday, a committee considering the $20 million election proposal appeared to stalemate, and testimony on the proposed amendment led another panel to extend its hearing into the afternoon, the Associated Press reported.

Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) has told lawmakers they should pass the package by May 10, which would be 90 days before the proposed an Aug. 8 election.

2nd Amendment Argument

Some Republicans in the GOP-majority legislature said the goal is to combat the influence of unnamed deep-pocketed special interests.

“Time after time, we’ve seen special interests buy their way onto the statewide ballot and spend millions of dollars in ads while seeking to make permanent policy changes to in our state constitution,” Sen. Rob McColley, the co-lead sponsor of the Senate’s version of the legislative package, said in an April 19 statement.

Michael Gonidakis, president of the anti-abortion group Ohio Right to Life, said changing the constitutional amendment rules are important to people who care about other issues besides abortion.

“Of course, abortion is, you know, top of mind, tip of the spear right now,” he said. “But when they’re done with us, they’re going to come after the Second Amendment folks in Ohio too, the right to bear arms, you know.”

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“So when they’re done with us, they’re going just keep going because Ohio’s constitution is not protected like other states,” he said.

Other states have shown that abortion can drive voter turnout, as demonstrated in the recent victory of a state Supreme Court candidate in Wisconsin who supports abortion rights.

Last year, voters in deep-red Kansas kept in place their high court’s decision that said the state constitution ensures abortion rights, and reproductive-rights measures prevailed on three other state ballots in November. In Kentucky, which hasn’t supported a Democratic presidential candidate in more than 25 years, a measure seeking to amend the constitution to include “no right to an abortion” failed.

“This is not isolated to Ohio,” said Kelly Hall, executive director of the progressive ballot measure group The Fairness Project.

The effort to make Ohio the next state with a constitutional right to abortion is in the petition stage and would go before voters in November if enough valid signatures are submitted.

August Flip-Flop

Just last year, Ohio eliminated most August elections — a restriction that LaRose supported at the time.

August elections have low turnout, so “that means just a handful of voters end up making big decisions,” he said in written testimony. “The side that wins is often the one that has a vested interest in the passage of the issue up for consideration.”

The past four governors of Ohio all oppose having an August election this year.

A spokesman for Gov. Mike DeWine (R), who signed the bill eliminating most August elections, noted that the governor does not have to sign the resolution to put the amendment question before voters. As for the proposed Aug. 8 election, he said the legislature the power to set elections and that he “is neither opposed to the General Assembly exercising the power to set elections nor to voters deciding on the issues being debated.”

LaRose, whose office did not respond to an email seeking comment, has said he supports an August election in this instance because it wouldn’t be a low-turnout one.

Abortion advocates, however, are not buying it.

“They can’t stomach the people of Ohio actually, you know, exercising their right to self-government and creating policy that they want to see,” said Marozzi.

To contact the reporter on this story: Eric Heisig in Ohio at eheisig@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Katherine Rizzo at krizzo@bgov.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com

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