Battle brewing over changes to how issues get on Ohio ballot

In recent years Ohioans have voted through state-wide ballot initiatives to ban smoking in public places, establish casinos in four cities and reject a proposal to give a monopoly on the growing and sale of marijuana.

But after this year’s Issue 2 campaign - in which a philanthropist from California sought to change how prescription drug pricing works in Ohio - a battle is brewing over how issues get on the ballot in the first place.

State Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg, wants to radically change the rules for how initiatives could be placed before Ohio voters. His proposals would make it harder to get an initiative through by increasing the number of signatures of support needed on petitions and prohibiting groups from paying workers to collect signatures.

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The goal of the joint resolution he introduced last week is to keep out-of-state interests out of Ohio politics, Antani said, but the stricter rules would apply to Ohioans as well. It would also change the rules for both constitutional amendments and citizen-initiated statutes.

“It’s going to make it impossible,” said Renea Turner, a Springfield resident who was active with Cannabis for Cures, which was part of the push to get a marijuana issue on the ballot in 2015. “People aren’t going to work for free.”

Her group had hoped to make Ohio the first state to legalize medical and recreational cannabis simultaneously. But when that measure failed, Cannabis for Cures worked with legislators to draft HB 523 which legalized medical marijuana.

Getting enough valid signatures is very difficult with the current requirements, Turner said, and requires hiring a firm to mobilize workers. “It’s millions of dollars,” she said.

Right now, to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot, petitioners must submit signatures equal to 10 percent of the votes cast for governor in the last election. For initiated state statutes, the signatures must equal 3 percent of the votes cast for governor, followed by another 3 percent round of signatures if the legislature fails to enact the proposed legislation and sends it to the ballot.

That means right now there are 305,591 signatures required to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot and two rounds of 91,677 signatures each for statutes.

Antani’s proposed changes would raise those numbers to 381,999 and two rounds of 114,596.

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Turner said the changes will take away the power of Ohioans to initiate new laws and amendments without relying on the state legislature, which she suspects is the goal.

“In essence, everything that they are doing is eliminating the whole process of anyone being able to do this,” Turner said. Since working to draft the bill that legalized medical marijuana, she feels the legislature has deviated from the law as-written. She recently filed several lawsuits against the state agencies in charge of rolling out Ohio’s program.

Antani maintains that Ohioans who are passionate about an issue will be able to mobilize a grassroots campaign, and his proposed amendment would keep out wealthy interests from out-of-state.

“I want Ohioans to solve Ohio problems,” he said.

It’s not the first time there have been efforts to tighten the rules about ballot access. In recent years Ohioans have voted to move up the deadline for filing petitions and to prevent the initiative process from being used for personal economic gain.

If approved by the state legislature, Antani’s referendum would have to go before voters in order to amend the state constitution.

History of rejection

Recent history has shown Ohio voters to be very decisive on ballot issues, either rejecting or approving them by wide margins.

But this year’s Issue 1 and Issue 2 were even more lopsided than usual. Issue 1 - called ‘Marsy’s Law’ - seeks to give more rights to crime victims and was approved with 83 percent of the vote. Issue 2 — a measure aimed at reducing prescription drug prices but which was criticized by opponents as potentially having the opposite effect — was rejected by 79 percent of the voters who turned out on Tuesday.

Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University, said ballot issues tend to fall into one of two categories.

“It’s a culturally important question,” he said. “Or when there are very strong economic interests at work.” Examples would be the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, which brought out voters with strong religious convictions and the marijuana issue where there was a lot of potential money to be made.

There was a time when Ohioans were very stingy when it came to ballot issues. For nearly four decades, starting in the 1940s, Ohio voters rejected all but one initiative put before them, according to non-partisan election tracker Ballotpedia.

But the past decade has been friendlier to laws put to the electorate with two-thirds of proposed amendments and statutes getting approved.

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Antani’s proposed changes include increasing the threshold for voters to pass a ballot issue from a majority of votes to 60 percent. Ohio would be the only state to increase this threshold for initiated statutes, but Illinois and Florida require 60 percent of voters to approve constitutional amendments.

The smoking ban is the only recent citizen initiated ballot issue to pass by less than 60 percent at 58.5 percent.

Although the opponents of Issue 2 far outspent supporters to defeat the issue, there have been a number of Ohio ballot victories and defeats in recent years that prove money doesn’t automatically buy an outcome.

Supporters of the 2015 marijuana issue spent $21.5 million, about 10 times more than their opposition, but were handily rejected by voters.

And in 2008, the payday lending industry spent $19 million trying to defeat a voter referendum that passed with nearly 64 percent of the vote. The winning side on that issue spent just $250,000.

‘Testing ground’

When final campaign finance reports are submitted in December, it's expected the Issue 2 campaigns will have spent a combined $90 million — all to have a landslide defeat of an issue brought into Ohio by an out-of-state resident.

“Voters are voting the right way and rejecting ridiculous proposals, but it’s costing so much money,” said Chris Kershner, executive vice president of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce. The agency often weighs in on ballot issues on behalf of the local business community and was opposed to Issue 2.

Ohio, because it is a political swing state and because it is relatively easy to get items on the ballot, has become a testing ground for national interest groups, Kershner said.

“If you have $2 to $3 million you can get an issue on the ballot in Ohio,” he said.

Ohio is one of only 15 states that have processes for citizens to initiate both constitutional amendments and state statutes. The process is indirect for statutes, meaning the legislature has a chance to act on the proposed bill before it goes to voters, and direct for constitutional amendments. Proposed amendments that meet all qualifications go straight to the ballot.

Smith said Ohio’s process is minimal compared to other states and the federal constitution, but changing it is politically fraught.

“To some extent you could see it as (legislators) reasserting themselves as the primary mover of legislation in the state,” he said. “But lots of politicians love the initiative process because it takes controversial issues out of their hands.”

Kershner agrees with Antani that something must be done to make sure Ohio’s constitution belongs to its residents, but the chamber hasn’t taken a position on the proposed joint resolution specifically.

“There has to be a way for Ohioans to continue to amend the constitution,” he said. “A lot of these issues whether good or bad impact people’s lives, so the process needs to be serious and the issues themselves need to be serious.”

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