Dayton-area county boards of election are gearing up for an Aug. 8 election they weren’t planning for after the Ohio Legislature on Wednesday passed legislation asking voters to approve a change in how amendments are added to the state’s constitution.
Wednesday’s decision, which was made to get ahead of a possible November vote about abortion rights in the constitution, comes nearly six months after the legislature voted to eliminate August elections in Ohio.
“Right now, we’re rallying the troops,” said Montgomery County Board of Elections deputy director Russ Joseph. “We’ve been through some busy cycles, and we’re ramping up again.”
Short preparation time
Election board leaders in Montgomery, Greene, Warren and Clark counties are primarily concerned with finding poll workers and securing voting locations in a short timeframe.
August elections are tricky, as election boards need to gather poll workers and confirm voting locations during a time of summer vacations, school preparation and other late-summer obligations like church programming, Joseph said.
Warren County Elections Director Brian Sleeth echoed this, saying his election board is beginning to reach out to poll workers.
But Sleeth fears that many elections officials have notified poll workers and polling locations earlier this year that there would not be an August special election, meaning some may have made other plans or polling locations won’t be available.
The work to prepare for Aug. 8 is paired with county election boards still wrapping up the May 2 special election, which the boards are expected to certify in mid-May.
“We hoped to take a breather, but we’re going to keep plowing on,” Sleeth said.
Clark County election board director Jason Baker said that with every election, there’s work to ensure that the county has enough poll workers and voting locations. Election officials have a lot of work ahead of them, given a general election in November and another primary next spring.
“It’s pretty much non-stop between July and March 2024,” he said. “We have to take things in stride, and we’re really taking things one day at a time.”
August elections costly
On the horizon, too, is anticipation over where the money will come from to fund the special election, which the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office estimated will cost more than $15 million.
Joseph said Wednesday’s resolution did not include any funding for the state’s election boards, but his board did receive a directive from the Secretary of State’s office saying county boards will be reimbursed for the special election.
Last August’s special election was in 2022 cost the county more than $382,000 for a voter turnout of 6%.
The election board is expecting a higher turnout for the Aug. 8 election than past years, meaning more absentee ballots will likely be requested and mailed out.
“It will be a much larger expense… that’s out of our control,” Joseph said. “But we’re fortunate that we’ve got a lot of people that that really care about our community here in Montgomery County, and they’re going to do what needs to be done.”
Greene County election board director Alisha Lampert said that her county and others did not budget for an August election.
“It did come as a surprise,” she said. “But we are a professional office, we will be prepared to put on an August special no matter what, because that is our job.”
Abortion rights at core
An abortion rights amendment could go in front of voters as soon as November. Supporters of the resolution worked to set the Ohio Constitution change issue in a special August election ahead of the general election.
For more than 100 years Ohioans have been able to amend the state constitution with a simple majority vote of one more than 50%. The proposed amendment in August would require a 60% threshold for any future constitutional amendments and make it harder to get those proposed amendments on the ballot.
The new ballot issue does not need the governor’s signature and will be filed with the Ohio Secretary of State’s office. It will fall under current rules, which means that on Aug. 8 a simple majority of voters can decide if any future constitutional amendments will require the 60% threshold.
Dayton Right to Life chairman Gary Whitted said that Ohio’s rules for amending its constitution has a much lower threshold than some other states and the federal government.
“We are pleased that the legislature is taking steps to make our constitution more stable and less susceptible to the outside influences of special interest groups...” Whitted said.
Massachusetts, Illinois, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Nebraska, Mississippi, Wyoming, and Florida require a supermajority to pass petition-based constitutional amendments, according to the Ohio Secretary of State’s website.
Dr. Lauren Beene, the executive director of Ohio Physicians Rights and Protect Choice Ohio called the supermajority amendment “craven political maneuvering.”
“The desperate plot to silence the voters will fail,” she said. “We are confident Ohioans will defeat the anti-democracy amendment in August then pass our reproductive freedom amendment this fall.”
The deadline to register to vote in the Aug. 8 election is July 10. Early voting begins the next day.
State legislative partisan divide
All Ohio House and Senate Democrats voted against the proposed constitutional amendment and the Aug. 8 special election. In the House, five Republicans voted against the amendment and ten voted against the special election. None of the GOP “no” votes were from the Dayton-Springfield-Butler County area.
Democratic legislators portrayed the proposed amendment — known as Senate Joint Resolution 2 (SJR2) — as a blatant power grab that would give a minority of Ohio voters power over the majority and an effort to stop voters from approving the proposed abortion rights amendment.
“Yesterday, the Republicans in the Ohio House pushed forward an undemocratic, unpopular effort to strip Ohioans of the ‘one person one vote’ principle,” said State Rep. Willis E. Blackshear Jr., D-Dayton. “I voted no on SJR2 yesterday, and I will work alongside the Democratic Party and our heroic volunteers and activists to do everything I can to make sure this undemocratic power grab is defeated in August.”
“The Republican legislators know it was wrong and unpopular to restrict reproductive rights in Ohio. They know it will be overturned once we collect the signatures to get reproductive rights on the ballot, so they are attempting to change the rules because they know they can’t win a fair fight. It’s that simple,” said Blackshear, who is the only Democratic state legislator in the 9-county region.
Ohio House Minority Leader Allison Russo, D-Upper Arlington, called Wednesday’s vote “a dark day for democracy.”
“Extremists and special interest groups might hold the majority of House Republicans hostage, but the people and their constitution aren’t for sale,” Russo said. “The people will remember who sold out democracy (on Wednesday), and the people will defeat this measure at the ballot box.”
Russo argues that requiring a supermajority will “tilt the scales of democracy away from voters and toward well-funded, out-of-state, dark-monied special interests.”
State Rep. Phil Plummer, R-Butler Twp., and State Rep. Jenna Powell, R-Arcanum, argue that the current simple majority threshold is what gives too much power to special interests.
“I voted for SJR2 for one reason, to give the citizens a right to vote on protecting our constitution. This not a mandate, it just gives the citizens the right to make a choice. Do they want a 50 percent plus one threshold or a 60 percent?” Plummer said. “I am tired of out-of-state special interest groups imposing their agenda by changing our constitution. If they want to make changes, utilize the legislative process.”
Illinois billionaire Richard Uihlein contributed more than $1 million to a political action committee supporting the Republican legislators’ effort to require the 60% threshold, the Columbus Dispatch reported in April.
“SJR 2 will ensure that the unborn and families can flourish in Ohio,” Powell said. “It is critical that Ohio’s constitution is preserved, and that every Ohioan’s rights are protected,”
State Rep. Adam Mathews, R-Lebanon, sees his “yes” vote as protecting the state constitution.
“This foundational document is even stronger than the federal constitution, giving greater protections for conscience, property, self-defense, and religious liberty to us Ohioans. Any changes to these protections should have a widespread support among all Ohioans,” he said.
A spokesman for State Rep. Bill Dean, R-Xenia, said he was unavailable for comment. The remaining Republican legislators from the regional delegation could not be reached for comment.