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The Continuing Saga of Legislative Efforts to Suppress Voting Rights in Ohio

July 26, 2023 2:15 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

By Marilyn Go '73

Edited by Jim Harbison '73, Ryan O'Connell '73, and Jacki Swearingen '73

Much attention has recently been focused on a Special Election in Ohio on August 8 to amend the Ohio State Constitution. On the ballot is the question of whether to raise the voter threshold for approving amendments to the Constitution, a change sought by the Republican-led legislature. Critics of the proposal say that it is actually designed to curb current efforts by Ohioans to protect abortion rights in their Constitution, as well as to strengthen the power of the Ohio GOP lawmakers, who currently hold  super-majorities in both the House and Senate.

We encourage you to participate in the upcoming election in the following ways.  If you live in Ohio, we suggest you familiarize yourselves with the issues raised and make every possible effort to vote in this off-cycle election. This will help to ensure that the outcome reflects the will of the majority of Ohio voters, not a small minority with targeted interests. If you are already registered to vote in Ohio, you may vote by mail, but must request an absentee ballot by August 1 from the Ohio Secretary of State. See instructions here.

We also encourage you to support or volunteer at organizations that will assist voters in Ohio, including the following:

You can also provide support virtually: :

  • VoteRiders August 3, 7:00 - 8:00pm - Virtual text bank to provide information about new Ohio voter ID laws

Although Ohio is currently viewed as a "red" state, the political landscape in Ohio is complex. In recent Presidential elections, Barack Obama won Ohio in close contests in 2008 and 2012. Donald Trump then won the vote of Ohioans by around 8% points in 2016 and 2020, a far higher margin than in any prior presidential election in Ohio. Notably, since 1896, Ohio has voted for the winning presidential candidate, except in 1944 (Franklin D. Roosevelt), 1960 (John F. Kennedy), and, most recently, Joe Biden in 2020.[1] The state has often been viewed as a key barometer of public opinion on presidential candidates.

Data from the Ohio Secretary of State for 2021 indicates that of the almost 8 million registered voters in Ohio, about 6.2 million voters were listed as unaffiliated. Registered Democrats who generally reside in the urban, northeastern areas of the state outnumber registered Republicans, who primarily reside in the rural areas of Ohio, by about 100,000. The U.S. Senators elected from this state come from both parties: Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and J.D. Vance, a Republican. So do the U.S. House Representatives: 10 Republicans and 5 Democrats. Sen. Brown, who is up for re-election next year, is likely to face a serious challenge in a race that may possibly affect political control of the U.S. Senate.

At the state level, the Republicans control both the House of Representatives and Senate with super-majorities. According to several political commentators, they have achieved this dominant position through extreme gerrymandering, despite a prohibition against extreme partisanship in redistricting contained in an amendment to the Ohio Constitution. Voters overwhelmingly passed the amendment in 2018.

Notwithstanding this constitutional directive, both state and congressional maps that Republican mapmakers drew have been challenged and found to be in violation of the State Constitution a number of times. In 2022, Republican lawmakers chose twice to ignore orders by the Ohio Supreme Court to revise the overly partisan maps. By letting the clock run out, the legislators used a congressional map previously found inadequate.

Voters have again brought challenges to districts drawn by the Ohio legislature for the current election cycle. The Ohio Supreme Court upheld those challenges and the legislators appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 30, 2023, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the Ohio Supreme Court to reconsider the case in light of Harper v. Moore, a case in which the Court invalidated partisan maps drawn by North Carolina legislators. Rejecting the view forwarded by Ohio Republican legislators that they can ignore an Ohio Supreme Court order to redraw the state’s congressional district map for the 2024 election, the U.S. Supreme Court emphasized that state lawmakers cannot make congressional redistricting decisions unchecked by state law and courts. Republican leaders have said that maps will be redrawn this summer.

The state legislature has engaged in other efforts to limit the rights of voters. In January 2023, Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican, signed a sweeping package of election law changes that, among other things, imposes the state's first (and very stringent) photo ID requirements, shortens the time to request and return an absentee ballot, and narrows the windows after Election Day for returning and curing ballots.

On the ballot for the special election is a proposal to increase the requirements for amending the state Constitution. Ohio is one of 24 states that gives its citizens the power of initiative, which, in Ohio, includes the right to initiate new laws or to place proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot. In 1912, voters approved an amendment to the Ohio Constitution to give citizens initiative and referendum powers, a measure championed by the late President Theodore Roosevelt as a way to force an unresponsive government to address the public’s concerns.

In a vote divided along partisan lines, the Republican-led legislature has scheduled a special election in August to vote on raising the current simple majority threshold (50% of the votes +1) for passing constitutional amendments to 60%. (However, the Legislature did not suggest changing voting requirements for passage of its bills or for voter referendum - i.e., the right of voters to reject legislation passed). The ballot will also include a vote on a proposal to double the number of counties from which signatures are required in order to place a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot, from 44 counties (50%) to all 88 counties (100%). In addition, the proposed change would eliminate an existing 10-day cure period to fix any errors in signatures collected. If the proposed constitutional amendment is approved, Ohio would become the only state to require citizen campaigns to collect signatures from all of its 88 counties.

Critics of the proposed amendment include bipartisan groups of former governors and attorneys general and more than 240 other groups. They note that the increased requirements may make voter-initiated amendments practically impossible and would greatly enhance the gerrymandered legislature’s power over the Ohio Constitution to the detriment of Ohio voters. The amendment would effectively give 40% of the population a veto power over any contemplated change to its Constitution.

A reason the Legislature seeks to increase requirements for constitutional amendments is, among other things, to thwart contemplated efforts to amend the Ohio Constitution to protect abortion rights. In 2019, the Ohio Legislature passed a law banning abortions after any embryonic cardiac activity is detected. This short time period was highlighted in news reports when a ten-year old girl, who was pregnant after being raped, had to travel to Indiana to get an abortion after the Ohio law went into effect when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

A lower state court subsequently stayed implementation of the Ohio law. Nonetheless, abortion rights activists in Ohio have collected over 700,000 signatures to place on the November election ballot a constitutional amendment to protecting a woman's right to an abortion.[2] Polls show that a large majority of Ohio voters support the right to an abortion, particularly for victims of rape and incest.

Despite having acknowledged that the turnout for elections held in the summer is usually low, the Legislature has scheduled the special election for August 8, 2023. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled on June 16, 2023, in a 4-3 decision along party lines, that the proposed constitutional amendment may be placed on the August 8 ballot even though the legislature had, earlier in January, outlawed scheduling summer elections.

[1] However, the number of Ohio's presidential electoral votes has declined from a high of 26 in 1964 and 1968 to 16 votes following the 2020 census.

[2] In Ohio, before citizen-initiated measures for constitutional amendments may be placed on the ballot, proponents must meet a signature requirement of 10 percent of the vote for governor, or 413,487 for 2023. See here. The language of the proposed amendment is available here.

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