Under that proposal, amendments initiated by the General Assembly would still only need a simple majority of the statewide vote to take effect, but voter-initiated amendments would need to pass with at least 60% support.
But in its first committee hearing on Thursday, House Joint Resolution 6 got changed.
In the House Government Oversight Committee state Rep. D.J. Swearingen, R-Huron, immediately replaced the announced resolution with a substitute.
“The sub-bill essentially states that any amendment to the Ohio Constitution would require 60% approval,” whether it originates from citizen petition or the General Assembly, Swearingen said.
Since 2000, two citizen-led amendments passed with less than 60% of the vote, while three lawmaker-led amendments didn’t meet that threshold.
But they’re no more likely to pass now than before, according to state records.
This week more than 140 Ohio groups, predominantly liberal in orientation, called on House and Senate Republican leadership to reject HJR 6. The joint letter says the bar for amendments is already high enough, and raising it would mean that only big-money special interests could afford to fund successful amendment campaigns.
“There hasn’t been a citizen-initiated ballot measure before voters since 2018,” the Nov. 29 letter says. “Over the past 10 years, there were only four elections with ballot measures through signature collection. In the past 50 years, there were 28 years without a citizen initiative on the ballot. Of those elections that had a ballot measure, only a handful of the elections had more than one issue for voters to consider.”
There are two ways to add amendments to Ohio’s constitution, both of which require a simple majority vote in a statewide referendum: the Ohio General Assembly can put an amendment on the ballot, or voters themselves can gather enough support to do the same.
LaRose has said legislators hope to push a joint resolution by Stewart through the General Assembly’s current lame-duck session. That would put it on the statewide ballot in May 2023, an off-year election with traditionally low voter turnout.
To make the ballot as a lawmaker-led initiative, the resolution would need a two-thirds vote in the General Assembly, where Republicans hold a supermajority.
By contrast, voter-initiated amendments get a statewide vote if they first gather signatures from 10% of voters in the previous gubernatorial election. That’s 402,598 people, according to unofficial totals from the 2022 election.
In committee, Stewart said 32 states don’t allow constitutional amendments by citizen petition, while many of those that do have higher thresholds for approval than Ohio. Ohio’s standard makes the state a “pretty easy mark” for “unelected special interests” to get amendments passed, he said.
Answering a question from state Rep. Richard Brown, D-Canal Winchester, Stewart said he had collected no evidence from other states that higher thresholds for passing amendments actually discouraged special-interest groups from funding amendment campaigns.
LaRose noted that the Ohio Constitution has swelled to more than 67,000 words, nine times the length of the U.S. Constitution. He suggested a higher threshold of approval is needed to control that growth.
The state Legislative Reference Bureau compiled a list of constitutional amendments on the ballot from 1912 — when voter-initiated amendments were authorized — through 1954. Since then, the secretary of state’s office has added updates.
Ohio’s current constitution was adopted in 1851, superseding the 1802 version. A constitutional convention in 1910 proposed 41 amendments, of which 33 were adopted by voters, according to that list.
From 1912 through 2000 the General Assembly proposed 141 amendments, of which 94 passed and 47 failed.
In that period voter-initiated petitions got 53 amendments on the ballot, of which 14 passed and 39 failed.
From 2002 through 2022, 16 voter-initiated amendments made the statewide ballot, of which five passed. Sixteen amendments initiated by legislators also reached the ballot in that time, of which 14 passed. That’s not counting many proposed amendments that didn’t meet the threshold to go before voters.
Why raise the threshold?
LaRose and Stewart blamed the increase in voter-initiated amendments on unspecified “outside special interests.” LaRose said the change wouldn’t lessen the power of Ohio voters, since legislators proposing amendments already have to get at least two-thirds majority support, and those legislators are elected by the public.
Democrats immediately accused LaRose of using the issue as a springboard for a future U.S. Senate run.
The move came 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.
If the proposed new amendment passes, it would affect a potential vote on legalizing abortion. In May, anticipating the overturn of Roe v. Wade — which came in June — Ohio Democrats announced they would seek a state constitutional amendment to permanently legalize abortion in Ohio. They acknowledged they couldn’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.
LaRose said the higher threshold for amending the constitution is “not about one specific issue.”
What’s the process now?
Amendment language and certification is overseen by the five-member Ohio Ballot Board, chaired by the secretary of state.
To get an amendment on the statewide ballot, The General Assembly can pass a resolution with at least 59 votes in the House and 20 in the Senate. Then it can go on the statewide ballot at least 90 days after it’s filed with the secretary of state’s office. The amendment must be certified by the ballot board at least 75 days before the election. The state supreme court hears any legal challenges to the proposed amendment.
If the proposal passes by a simple majority of votes, it becomes part of the constitution.
Voter-initiated amendments must first get the signatures of 1,000 qualified voters. If the attorney general certifies that the description is a “fair and truthful statement” of its effect, it goes on to the ballot board. If certified by the board, it must then gather at least 10% of the total number of votes from the previous gubernatorial election. Those signatures must come from at least half of the state’s 88 counties, and in each county must get at least 5% of votes from the previous gubernatorial election.
If an amendment gets the required number of signatures, it must be filed with the secretary of state at least 125 days before the election in which it is to appear on the ballot. Again, it must be certified by the ballot board, and the state supreme court will hear any legal challenges.
If it passes with a simple majority, it will go into effect 30 days later.
What constitutional amendments have Ohioans voted on this century? Who proposed them, and how did they fare?
To allow some people convicted of drug possession or use to choose treatment instead of jail. Failed, 33% to 67%
To define marriage as between one man and one woman. Passed, 62% to 38%
To allow all voters to use absentee ballots in all elections. Failed, 37% to 63%
To limit political contributions and revise campaign disclosure rules. Failed, 33% to 67%
To create a state legislative redistricting commission. Failed, 30% to 70%
To create a new board to administer elections. Failed, 30% to 70%
To raise the minimum wage. Passed, 57% to 43%
To allow limited gambling to fund education. Failed, 43% to 57%
To ban indoor smoking with some exceptions. Failed, 36% to 64%
To allow a casino near Wilmington, with tax revenue distributed statewide. Failed, 38% to 62%
To allow one casino each in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo, with tax revenue distributed statewide. Passed, 53% to 47%
To ensure Ohioans can choose their healthcare and coverage. Passed, 66% to 34%
To create a state commission for legislative redistricting. Failed, 37% to 63%
Grant a monopoly for the commercial production and sale of recreational and medicinal marijuana. Failed, 36% to 64%
Rights for crime victims. Passed, 83% to 17%
To reduce penalties for obtaining, possessing and using illegal drugs. Failed, 37% to 63%
Proposed by General Assembly:
To issue bonds or for environmental conservation and revitalization projects. Passed, 57% to 43%
To support research and create jobs. Failed, 49% to 51%
To create jobs and stimulate growth. Passed, 54% to 46%
To set earlier filing deadlines for statewide ballot issues. Passed, 69% to 31%
To issue bonds for continuing the Clear Ohio environmental program. Passed, 69% to 31%
To protect property rights in water features. Passed, 72% to 28%
To issue bonds to compensate veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Passed, 72% to 28%
To create the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board and establish standards of care for livestock and poultry. Passed, 64% to 36%
To issue more bonds to extend the Ohio Third Frontier Program. Passed, 62% to 38%
To move the authorized Columbus casino location. Passed, 68% to 32%
To raise the maximum age for election or appointment as a judge, eliminate the General Assembly’s authority to establish courts of conciliation and eliminate the governor’s authority to appoint a supreme court commission. Failed, 38% to 62%
To issue bonds for public infrastructure and capital improvements. Passed, 65% to 35%
To create a bipartisan public process for legislative redistricting. Passed, 71% to 29%
To protect the initiative process from being used for personal economic gain. Passed, 51% to 49%
To create a bipartisan public process for drawing congressional districts. Passed, 75% to 25%
To require courts to consider public safety during bail hearings. Passed, 78% to 22%
To forbid noncitizens from voting in any state or local elections. Passed, 77% to 23%