There are circles inside of circles at the Statehouse as the Republican-run Ohio House of Representatives demonstrated in a May 10 rollcall on an antiabortion constitutional amendment.
With 60 votes required, representatives voted 62-37 (62 Republicans vs. 32 Democrats and five Republicans) to ask voters in August to make it harder to amend the Ohio Constitution at the ballot box.
But unofficially, and way below the surface, the vote reinforced House Speaker Jason Stephens, a Kitts Hill Republican, in a way that bears some explaining.
Aim of the ballot issue, Senate Joint Resolution 2: To require a “yes” vote on of at least 60% of the voters (not current law’s 50% plus one vote) to OK a separate amendment to be proposed by voter petition — if it makes Nov. 7′s general election ballot — establishing a woman’s right to choose abortion.
For 111 years, Ohio has required a statewide vote of 50% plus one to amend the state constitution. Reason for the proposed 60% change: The anti-abortion movement, which owns Statehouse Republicans lock, stock, and barrel, knows that when voters in other have states passed pro-abortion amendments, the “yes” percentage in those states has usually been less than 60%.
That is, a 60% rule in Ohio — if voters approve it a special, pricey Aug. 8 election — might block an abortion-rights measure, if such a measure makes November’s ballot, even if 59.99% of the voters favor it. That’s “democracy,” Ohio-style. But arguably something else was happening subsurface in the House that day — something bolstering Republican Speaker Stephens.
On Jan. 3, bystanders will recall, Stephens, because of a split in the House GOP caucus, was elected speaker only because the House’s 32 Democrats joined 22 House Republicans to vote for Stephens rather than Rep. Derek Merrin, a suburban Toledo Republican backed by the hard right.
But on May 10, while all House Democrats voted against SJR 2 as did five Republicans — thus, in effect, against Stephens — the 62 other members of the House GOP caucus (including Stephens himself) voted with Stephens.
And while that hardly suggests all is forgiven inside the GOP caucus — after all, the vote really was an IOU repaid to the anti-abortion movement — it certainly left Stephens in what looks like a stronger position that he’d had.
Stephens’s passage of the anti-abortion amendment also matters because of what looks like legislative competition between Stephens and a fellow Republican, Senate President Matt Huffman, of Lima.
Huffman is term-limited out of the Senate in 18 months, but Stephens can run again for the House (hence the speakership) in 2024 and 2026.
And, The Columbus Dispatch’s Laura Bischoff recently reported, “[Huffman] said he wants to run for the Ohio House in 2024 and ‘maybe, someday’ be speaker.” (Huffman was deputy speaker during part of the 2011-14 speakership of the late William G. Batchelder, of Medina.)
Of course, if Huffman is elected to the House next year, “maybe, someday,” could be anytime in a legislature that will meet from 2025 through 2031, with Stephens likely to be running for speaker in 2025 and 2027 (assuming GOP gerrymandering continues to keep Democrats a besieged minority).
True, for the rank-and-file Ohioan, this may seem like just another day at the Big Frat House on Capitol Square. But with a new governor being elected in 2026, and the ever-churned by term-limits, the interplay between Messrs. Huffman and Stephens will be a key factor in this year’s state budget debate — and in the policy debates to come. The Ohio of 2025 and 2026 is being fashioned today.
Thomas Suddes is a former legislative reporter with The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and writes from Ohio University. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author