Dennis Aftergut is a former federal prosecutor, currently of counsel toLawyers Defending American Democracy.
On July 11, early voting began in Ohio on Issue 1, an August 8 special election measure that the state’s Republican-controlled legislature fast-tracked as a preemptive attack on abortion rights. Legislators knew that petitions were circulating for a November ballot initiative to enact constitutional protection for reproductive freedom in Ohio. Last week, pro-choice advocates filed those petitions.
Issue 1 would make that November measure far harder to pass. Issue 1, if adopted, would raise to 60 percent the current threshold of 50 percent + 1 for approving state constitutional amendments.
Gene Krebs, a former Ohio Republican legislator, pinpoints what’s behind the change: politicians not wanting to share lawmaking power with citizens. Still, in a glimmer of bipartisanship, five Ohio Republican Assembly members voted with the 32 Democrats against placing Issue 1 on the ballot. Former Republican Governors John Kasich and Bob Taft also oppose it.
The specious ballot arguments of those sponsoring Issue 1 betray a covert agenda. But first, here’s some background.
Last year, following the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, voters in Kansas and Kentucky sided with abortion rights on measures seeking to amend their constitutions. In neither state, however, did the victory percentage reach 60 percent.
Consider how limiting citizens’ state lawmaking power connects to history. Measures like Ohio’s pending pro-abortion ballot, initiated by citizens gathering signatures, are the pro-democracy legacy of the early 20th century’s Progressive Movement. Today, 18 states allow voters to place proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot, all but three of them with a simple majority vote threshold for passage.
Early 20th century reformers devised initiative measures as a way to return power to citizens. Using their new power, voters enacted minimum wages, the eight-hour day, and paid vacations for workers. Voters circumvented legislatures that were often bought, sold and paid for by the robber barons of the 19th century's "Gilded Age.”
They say that history doesn’t repeat but it rhymes. “Ohio has one of the most corrupt state governments in the country,” writes David DeWitt, the Ohio Capitol Journal’s editor-in-chief. “Politicians have regularly given away billions of dollars in public money . . . in scandal after scandal.” Note that in March, a federal jury convicted Larry Householder, the Ohio House’s former speaker, of a $60 million bribery scheme.
As for Issue 1, the first sentence of Republican Rep. Brian Stewart’s ballot argument in favor suggests that the measure is a counter to corruption. Stewart writes that it “protects our Constitution from deep-pocketed, out-of-state interests.” But the biggest funder of Issue 1, conservative billionaire Richard Uihlein, lives in Illinois!
That’s not the only apparent hypocrisy. In calling a special August election to disadvantage the expected November ballot measure protecting abortion rights, Republican lawmakers have done a sharp procedural about-face. Less than a year ago, the Legislature eliminated local special August elections except in cases of fiscal emergency. The argument was that making important decisions in low-turnout August elections “isn’t the way democracy is supposed to work.”
Ohio’s legislators could have argued that a 60 percent threshold for initiatives changing the constitution would safeguard minority rights. That could attract some fair-minded voters. But keep in mind that this legislative majority just enacted a highly restrictive 2023 voter ID law, with its evident suppression of minority voting rights.
If you are an Ohio voter concerned about individual rights, Issue 1 presents a choice: Should you vote to maintain majority rule to help restore women’s protections that the Ohio legislature has already voted to take away, or vote to protect rights that some future ballot measure might eliminate?
None of this is to say that Democrats’ ballot arguments against Issue 1 are paragons of civic discourse. The anti-Issue 1 advocates assert that the measure would “shred our constitution” and “take away our freedom.”
Wouldn’t it be enough to say that Issue 1 would shred a vital constitutional provision, the one protecting majority rule? And that the measure aims specifically to take away reproductive freedom? Overstatement may amplify messaging, but it risks diluting credibility and public understanding.
Ohio voters who want to retain their power have recent history on their side. In 2022, voters in two other red states, South Dakota and Arkansas, rejected measures just like Issue 1.
At the same time, a June Scripps News/YouGov poll found that Ohio voters were evenly divided on Issue 1. Education about the measure’s anti-abortion purpose is important because the polling also showed that 58 percent of voters back enacting reproductive rights into the state’s constitution.
It’s that majority sentiment that’s in Issue 1’s crosshairs. Starting this week, Ohio voters can choose between majority rule and politicians who would like to keep power for themselves.