Voters to decide on convention to rewrite state rules

Every 20 years, the Ohio Constitution specifies that voters can request a citizen-led overhaul to “revise, alter or amend” the document that lays out the fundamental rules of the Buckeye State.

And, for the most part, every 20 years it fails. If Issue 1 passes, Ohio would have its first constitutional convention in more than 100 years.

The argument isn’t over whether the constitution needs updating. Many politicians and experts argue the document is cluttered and parts of it hopelessly outdated. There is a section, for example, that forbids “idiots and insane persons” from voting.

But some argue there are better ways to rewrite the constitution. Last year the General Assembly decided to form the Constitutional Modernization Commission, which consists of lawmakers and interested citizens who will study the constitution and make changes over several years.

The constitution includes everything from rules prohibiting same-sex marriage to the placement of casinos in and around four Ohio cities. It’s been updated many times, but only three times have Ohio voters opted for a constitutional convention to make changes. The last time it was on the ballot, in 1992, more than 61 percent of Ohioans voting against it.

If Ohioans vote yes and approve Issue 1 this time, the modernization commission would act as an adviser to the constitutional convention. Another election would be held and Ohioans would vote for 99 people from a nonpartisan ballot to make up the convention. The convention would then meet within three months of the election, and could complete its work within a few months to a year, based on past conventions.

All amendments agreed upon by the convention would be put before voters for approval.

Maurice Thompson, director of the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, said the structure of the convention is very straightforward but could play out like a Wild West scenario. Well-organized institutions such as unions, tea party groups or county leadership could lobby to get their representatives elected to the convention and their amendments added to the list presented to voters, he said.

The 1851 Center hasn’t taken a position on Issue 1, but Thompson said it’s a better option than letting “political elites” in Columbus do the work. Citizen efforts to add or change the constitution are cheaper through Issue 1 than the enormous cost involved in a single constitutional amendment, he said, noting the millions of dollars spent on repealing Senate Bill 5 last year.

“There’s a bunch of junk in there that’s just a function of special interest lobbying,” Thompson said, adding that “a lot of the good stuff has been stripped out” or misinterpreted by court decisions.

Voters approved a convention in 1849, 1871 and 1910. Ohio’s first constitution was approved in 1802, but the Constitution of 1851, drafted during a convention and approved by voters, is the fundamental law used today.

The constitution was amended again in 1912, when voters approved 33 of 41 amendments proposed. Voters approved amendments that provided voter-led initiative and referendum, granted line-item veto power to the governor and allowed the legislature to set minimum wage and labor requirements. Voters rejected amendments granting women the right to vote, abolishing the death penalty and using voting machines.

Since then, the constitution has been amended 120 times, initiated by lawmakers or citizens and approved by voters, according to Steven Steinglass, dean emeritus at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and an Ohio Constitution expert.

“There’s a trend in Ohio and other places to adopt lengthy, almost statute-like provisions and put them in the constitution,” Steinglass said.

The last round of revisions was made by a constitutional revision commission in the 1970s. The panel recommended 18 constitutional amendments; Ohio voters adopted 15.

Steinglass said a commission — rather than a constitutional convention — is able to review the constitution in a more deliberate and careful way.

The modernization commission the legislature created last year has 32 members: three Republicans and Democrats from each of the Ohio Senate and House of Representatives and 20 lawyers, former politicians and others chosen by the 12 lawmakers.

The commission plans to propose changes by the end of this year and every two years after until July 1, 2021, or it decides its work is done. Changes are sent to the General Assembly by a two-thirds vote of the commission and placed before voters with a three-fifths vote by both the Senate and House of Representatives.

Commission member Rep. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, said the longer time line of the commission’s work inherently makes the process less political. Huffman said a constitutional convention has too many unknowns, especially the outcome.

“When things are done quickly, they’re not usually done as well,” Huffman said.

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