Ohio Secretary of State wants to make it harder for citizens to amend constitution

Credit: Jim Gaines

Credit: Jim Gaines

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose and state Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, announced Thursday a fast-track effort to raise the threshold for passing citizen-initiated state constitutional amendments.

“Unfortunately the Ohio Constitution over the years has come to be used as a tool by special interests,” LaRose said at a news conference in the Ohio Statehouse. He and Stewart didn’t name any of the “outside special interests” they accuse of seeking to change the state’s constitution, but LaRose said the last three petition-based amendment campaigns disclosed more than $50 million in spending.

Democrats immediately denounced the proposal, accusing LaRose of using it as a springboard for a future U.S. Senate run.

“Frank LaRose has once again put politics over principle, and is selling out to extreme Republicans who don’t want to be held accountable by Ohio voters,” said state Democratic Party Chair Elizabeth Walters. “LaRose’s proposal is just the latest example of appeasing Republican extremists in pursuit of his own political ambitions. LaRose is willing to sell out democracy for a shot at the Republican Senate primary in two years. Ohio Democrats are going to fight like hell to make sure this proposal never passes in Ohio and LaRose never holds higher office.”

Stewart said he has filed a joint resolution that would amend Article 2 of the Ohio Constitution.

There are two ways to put amendments to the Ohio Constitution up for a statewide referendum. One is by a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly, where Republicans hold a supermajority.

The other is through a citizen petition with signatures from 10% of voters in the previous gubernatorial election. That’s currently 402,598 people, according to unofficial totals from the 2022 election.

Amendments via both processes now become part of the constitution if they get 50%-plus-one in the next statewide vote.

Under this proposal, amendments initiated by the General Assembly would still only need that margin, but citizen-initiated amendments would need to pass with at least 60% of the next statewide vote.

LaRose denied that the higher threshold for public petitions really decreases citizens’ voices, since amendments that come through the General Assembly already have to meet that level of support from representatives directly elected by the public.

The move comes less than two weeks after the passage of two Republican-backed constitutional amendments, both of which came through the General Assembly: prohibiting noncitizens from voting in any Ohio election, and adding a requirement to the rules for granting bail.

LaRose said he and Stewart have talked to legislative leaders and hope to push the resolution through both houses during the current lame-duck session. That would put it on the statewide ballot in May 2023, an off-year election with traditionally low voter turnout.

In May, anticipating the overturn of Roe v. Wade — which came in June — Ohio Democrats announced they will seek a state constitutional amendment to permanently legalize abortion in Ohio. They acknowledged at the time they can’t get it through the Republican-held General Assembly, instead framing their move as the start of a citizen-backed petition campaign — exactly the sort of effort Stewart’s proposed amendment would make harder.

Asked if this proposal is aimed at blocking an amendment to legalize abortion, LaRose said it’s “not about one specific issue.” It’s being proposed now “because it’s ready now,” he said.

In this century 16 petition-initiated amendments have made the ballot, LaRose said. Eleven of them failed. Of the five that passed, three had at least 60% of the vote, he said.

Of 17 amendments proposed by the General Assembly in the same time, only two failed. Of the 15 that passed, 12 had at least 60% of the vote, LaRose said.

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