Last month, Ohio voters soundly defied the state legislature by rejecting Issue 1 and maintaining the collective control a simple majority of Ohioans have had over the state constitution for over a century.
In doing so, the window of opportunity for citizen-initiated amendments — the sole way to alter the state’s fundamental law without the Ohio General Assembly’s consent and the most concrete way for citizens to directly enact statewide policies of any sort in Ohio — remains open.
In the wake of the Issue 1 vote, the Dayton Daily News analyzed citizen-initiated amendments in the pipeline that could come before voters in coming years. They include efforts aiming to: protect abortion access and establish reproductive autonomy; create a citizen redistricting commission to address gerrymandering; establish a $15 minimum wage; end qualified immunity for government employees; grant the right to refuse vaccines and medical treatment; and establish more manageable nurse-to-patient ratios in nursing homes.
Ohio citizens can also pursue a citizen-initiated statute process, which is a different process with a lower bar that results in creating a state law, not amending the constitution. This is the route taken by the recreational marijuana issue on the November ballot. Issue 1 backers argued this is a better route than tampering with the Constitution, but organizers note that it’s still a difficult process and nothing protects the statute from just being overturned by state lawmakers.
Here’s where each initiative stands in Ohio’s citizen-initiated amendment process, which can be broken down into several stages: state certification, petition circulation and ballot qualification.
The first step to getting a proposed amendment on the ballot involves forming a committee and submitting an initial written petition with 1,000 signatures with the full text and summary of the proposed amendment. It’s up to the Ohio Attorney General then to decide whether the petitions the campaign intends to circulate contain a fair and truthful representation of the proposal.
Ohio has two amendment proposals still in this stage, an amendment to end qualified immunity for government employees and an amendment to change the way Ohio draws its legislative and congressional districts.
Within the past month, both of these initiatives were denied by Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost.
It’s fairly common for initiatives to be rejected by the attorney general. In Ohio, rejected submissions can be tweaked and resubmitted as many times as necessary. But it’s costly; campaigns need to submit 1,000 verified signatures alongside their petition in order to be considered.
Last month was the first rejection for Citizens Not Politicians and the third rejection for the Ohio Coalition to End Qualified Immunity, which picked up the torch after another campaign with similar goals had been rejected three times, too.
Both campaigns told Dayton Daily News that they’ll adjust and resubmit.
If the attorney general would have certified, the initiatives would have moved on to the Ohio Ballot Board, which is tasked with determining whether a proposal contains one or several amendments within it.
If the board found there were several amendments within a proposal, it would have to divide them into singular amendments. The campaign would then have to submit those individual amendments, along with new summaries, to the attorney general.
Once the ballot board certifies, campaigns can begin circulating their petitions, with the goal of gathering enough signatures to make the ballot.
This stage is where most initiatives fizzle out and where three of Ohio’s six active citizen-initiated amendments are; including an amendment to establish a $15 minimum wage, an amendment to grant legal protections for folks who refuse vaccination or other medical treatment, and the amendment to create a more manageable nurse-to-patient ratio in nursing homes.
By law, campaigns are required to gather a number of valid signatures equal to at least 10% of the most recent total vote for governor, distributed from at least 44 counties. That number today equals 413,487 signatures statewide to make the ballot.
That many signatures proves to be a difficult ask for most campaigns, but it’s especially true for campaigns that are entirely volunteer, like the campaigns behind the medical right to refuse and the nursing facility patients’ bill of rights.
Diana Smith, who got her amendment fully approved in July 2022 has collected over 27,000 unverified signatures for the medical right to refuse amendment; Jesse Ruffin Jr. got his nursing facility patients’ bill of rights certified in July 2021 and has gathered over 50,000 unverified signatures. Comparatively, Raise the Wage Ohio, a chapter of a well-funded national campaign, has gotten over 100,000 signatures on its $15 minimum wage amendment since it was fully approved in April of this year.
Each campaign is hoping to get on the ballot in 2024. While Raise the Wage expects to have their circulation process complete by the end of the year, Ruffin said his campaign is planning to partner with an outside firm to help with gathering signatures.
In Ohio, there’s no limit to how long campaigns can take to circulate their petitions, which is a comfort for Smith.
“It may simmer, but I’m hoping it catches on fire and everybody can get the signatures, that’s my hope,” Smith said. “It will always be there and it always stays good until you turn the signatures in.”
Once any of these campaigns feels comfortable submitting their signatures to the Secretary of State, the signatures will be verified by the local boards of elections and the Secretary of State will issue a final determination on if the amendment will appear on the ballot.
This stage is where the sixth and final active initiative amendment stands. The abortion-rights amendment was the first citizen-initiated amendment to make it onto the ballot since 2018. The campaign behind it if it passes, it would be the first successful citizen-initiated amendment since 2017′s crime victim bill of rights.
What would these policies would do? Why’d they choose amendments?
The abortion-rights amendment would establish the right for individuals to make and carry out their own reproductive decisions. It would protect access to abortion up to fetal viability, allowing the legislature to ban the procedure after that point, except in cases where the mother’s life or health are at risk.
The amendment would also protect a person’s right to make decisions on contraception, fertility care, miscarriage care and the decision to continue one’s own pregnancy.
Ohio’s current law bans abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which is usually around six weeks. However, that law was temporarily blocked by the courts. Functionally, Ohio disallows abortions at about 22 weeks.
Jeff Rusnak, a strategist with the coalition that brought the amendment to the ballot, said the amendment — which would circumvent and override the legislature — was a necessary route to take due to the Ohio General Assembly’s “extreme” stance on abortion.
“There are issues that the public overwhelmingly supports and are necessary, where the legislature is in a completely different place. In this instance, they’re in the opposite place. What they have done is pass harmful legislation that is counter to what a solid majority of Ohioans support,” Rusnak told the Dayton Daily News.
In a debate shortly before the August Issue 1 vote, Ohio Right to Life President and prominent Statehouse lobbyist Mike Gonidakis argued that circumventing the legislature with citizen-initiated amendments was undemocratic.
The redistricting amendment is led by Republican former Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, whose court deemed Ohio’s new legislative maps unconstitutional in 2022 — maps that are still in effect. In her retirement, O’Connor’s aim has been to create a redistricting process that takes map-drawing power away from politicians.
The amendment would create the Ohio Citizens Redistricting Commission, and would bar current or former elected officials, lobbyists, staffers and other political insiders from serving on the commission. The commission would be required to meet in public and prohibited from drawing maps that intentionally favor one political party.
Chris Davey, a spokesperson for Citizens Not Politicians, said his organization believes a fix needed to come through an initiated amendment “because the politicians have demonstrated no interest in fixing the system they benefit from.”
Ending Qualified Immunity
Kyle Pierce, director of Ohio Coalition to End Qualified Immunity, said that his campaign’s amendment would allow citizens to bring civil lawsuits more easily against the government and its employees in the event that a government violated someone’s rights.
“This isn’t something that’s trying to seek vengeance on government employees, this is just trying to hold our government accountable through the civil courts. If it’s not going to be done administratively — if it’s gonna be two weeks paid vacation from the administrative side — and if prosecutors refuse to prosecute their colleagues, fellow government workers, then the only other way to hold this government accountable is through the civil courts,” he said.
Pierce said that the campaign considered attempting an initiated statute instead of an amendment, but the lack of safe-haven on policies passed via the initiated statute made them choose an amendment.
Raise the Wage
This amendment would create a $15 minimum wage by 2026 and then tie that wage to rise with inflation. It would also disallow the sub-minimum wage paid to tipped employees common in the restaurant industry.
Mariah Ross, the Ohio campaign manager for One Fair Wage, said the state legislature has been hesitant to raise the minimum wage, despite bills being introduced.
“In Ohio specifically, (legislators) have been unresponsive. We have brought it up several times and they don’t move the issue,” Ross said. “We have done polling, we’re confident that over a majority of people in Ohio support raising the minimum wage to $15.″
Nursing Patients’ Bill of Rights
Ruffin’s amendment would provide that no nurse should be tasked with caring for more than eight patients in nursing facilities.
He said the amendment, often known as Carolyn’s Law, is in memory of his wife, who was badly injured in a nursing facility shortly after having a brain tumor removed back in 2014.
“We have an issue right now where there’s situations where a nurse or a nurse aide could be taking care of as many as 25, 30, 40 patients — there’s no limit for them. We have to bring about proper nurse/patient ratios in the state of Ohio’s nursing homes and facilities,” Ruffin said.
Ruffin told the Dayton Daily News that he approached lawmakers with the intent of introducing Carolyn’s Law to the legislature, but he didn’t think it was a good fit.
Medical Right to Refuse
Diana Smith began her campaign after a bill she liked, House Bill 248, stalled in committee in 2021.
Smith said she modeled her amendment after the bill. The amendment would give every Ohioan the right to deny medical treatment and devices of any sort, including vaccines and masks, and prohibit discrimination against people who exercise that right.
“I just saw the writing on the wall, so I was just wondering what we the people can do if our legislators aren’t gonna do their job and listen to their constituents,” Smith said.