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How many voters does it take to make a majority? Why Ohio's Issue 1 is controversial

Ohio residents line up to vote early in-person on Issue 1 in front of the Franklin County Board of Elections in Columbus, Ohio on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023.
Samantha Hendrickson
Ohio residents line up to vote early in-person on Issue 1 in front of the Franklin County Board of Elections in Columbus, Ohio on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Voters head to the polls Tuesday for a special election over Issue 1, a ballot measure which seeks to raise the threshold for voter approval of amendments to Ohio's constitution.

If passed, the measure would require 60% approval to pass future constitutional amendments, up from the current simple majority requirement that has been Ohio's standard since 1912.

Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who proposed the measure, said it's about keeping wealthy out-of-state special interests out of Ohio's founding document.

"We're talking about amending the Constitution probably for the rest of our lifetimes," said LaRose. "That should be taken very seriously."

Opponents of the referendum suspect the timing is designed to thwart a constitutional amendment coming up on the November ballot — one that would enshrine the reproductive rights in the state constitution.

What Issue 1 has to do with abortion access in Ohio

It all started when Ohio's six-week abortion ban went into effect last summer. Soon after,news went viral of a 10-year-old rape victim who had gone to Indiana for an abortion when Ohio doctors wouldn't treat her.

A lawsuit put that ban on hold, but groups mobilized to draft an amendment to Ohio's constitution guaranteeing abortion access, and started gathering signatures for a November ballot issue.

Republican supermajority lawmakers couldn't get their 60% voter approval idea onto the state's May primary ballot, so in February they came up with a new plan — an August special election.

There was just one problem: Republicans had voted to eliminate most August special elections in a law they passed in December. LaRose, who testified in support of that law, said it shouldn't be an issue.

"As a course of action, normal course of doing business, yes, I do not believe in having elections in August as a normal way of holding elections," he explained.

"But if the state legislature decides to hold an election in August, it's not unusual," said LaRose.

It is unusual, however — the last time a statewide special election was held in August was in 1926.

Demonstrators flood the Ohio State Capitol rotunda in May, 2023, in protest of the state's Republican supermajority pushing through Issue 1 for an August special election.
Karen Kasler / Statehouse News Bureau/Ohio Public Radio
Statehouse News Bureau/Ohio Public Radio
Demonstrators flood the Ohio State Capitol rotunda in May 2023, in protest of the state's Republican supermajority pushing through Issue 1 for an August special election.

Opponents descend on the Ohio Statehouse

A huge coalition formed to oppose raising the approval threshold to 60%, and hundreds of those opponents descended on the statehouse in May.

Republican lawmakers pushed forward despite the protests, and even adding a provision to dramatically increase the workload for groups trying to put amendments before voters.

They'd now have to get signatures from all 88 counties, not 44 as in current law. In a state as large and rural as Ohio, that would make it almost impossible for grassroots groups to get amendments on the ballot.

Even under the current requirements, it's relatively rare for citizens and interest groups to get amendments before voters. Since 1912, Ohio's constitution has been amended 172 times, but only 19 of those came from citizens or groups.

Republican supermajority lawmakers easily passed the plan, and Democrats and protestors erupted in the Ohio House chamber after the vote with chants of "One person, one vote!"

The measure's opponents filed suit, claiming that the resolution violates a law that banning most August special elections. In a party-line decision, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled the law doesn't apply to state legislators putting a constitutional amendment before voters.

Controversial referendum draws national attention

The coalition for Issue 1 is primarily anti-abortion organizations, gun rights groups and the state's major business groups concerned about a coming minimum wage amendment.

The opposition includes union groups, abortion rights and gun law reform groups, Ohio's four living ex-governors and five former attorneys general from both parties.

Democratic former state Rep. Mike Curtin has been one of the leading voices against Issue 1.

"It was a rush job on a monumental question, shifting a 111-year-old right that Ohioans have had to amend their state constitution to making it darn near impossible to do so with a 60% threshold," Curtin said.

Despite the timing, in the middle of August vacation season when turn out is typically low, Ohioans have shown up for early voting. Long lines have been reported in some counties, and an ad blitz on both sides of the issue has totaled around $22 million, with nearly all of that money coming from outside Ohio.

Issue 1 is the only item on the ballot Tuesday.

Karen Kasler is bureau chief of the Statehouse News Bureau in Columbus, Ohio

Copyright 2023 The Statehouse News Bureau

Karen Kasler