Home U.S. News Abortion Drives Ohio Election on Amending the State Constitution

Abortion Drives Ohio Election on Amending the State Constitution

Abortion Drives Ohio Election on Amending the State Constitution

For more than a century, Ohio voters have been able to amend the State Constitution with a simple majority vote.

That could end on Tuesday, because the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature has called for a special election that would raise the bar for amendments from a simple majority to 60 percent of the vote.

The reason is no secret. Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, voters across the country, in multiple elections, have approved ballot measures protecting the right to abortion. A similar election has been scheduled for November in Ohio, and legislators are hoping the higher bar for passing amendments will lead to its defeat.

The blowback has been withering. Beyond denunciations from the Legislature’s usual liberal critics, there have been bipartisan statements from former governors and other former officeholders.

Former Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, a Republican, wrote on Twitter in April that he had watched voters reject policies that he and his legislative majority had backed. “It never occurred to me to try to limit Ohioans’ right to do that,” he wrote. “It wouldn’t have been right then, and it isn’t right now.”

Once, Ohio was the quintessential swing state. Now, on issues such as education, voting and abortion, it is an exemplar of a nationwide phenomenon: one-party-controlled legislatures, almost invariably Republican ones, changing the rules of the democratic process to extend their control even further.

The 2022 election brought single-party control of the governor’s office and legislature to 39 states, the most in at least three decades. And 29 states, 20 of them Republican, have veto-proof supermajorities that control both houses of the state legislatures. That has given legislatures, many of them heavily gerrymandered, extraordinary power to exert influence and to stay in power.

“We can kind of do what we want,” Matt Huffman, the powerful Ohio State Senate president, told the Columbus Dispatch in a 2022 profile. Few disagree, and Ohio has company. Last month, the Alabama Legislature shrugged off a federal court order — upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court — and drew a political map that gave the state one majority-Black congressional district instead of the two that court rulings mandated.

In April, Tennessee legislators expelled two Democrats because they staged a protest in the State House chamber. (The Democratic legislators have already been sent back by voters in special elections.)

In Texas, the Republican-led Legislature this year abolished the nonpartisan election administration post in counties with more than 3.5 million people — in other words, strongly Democratic Houston — and gave the Republican secretary of state authority to take over election administration there for “good cause.”

The Florida Legislature set the baseline for such moves in 2019 when it added restrictions that essentially rolled back an amendment to the State Constitution, approved by 65 percent of voters, that restored voting rights to people who had completed prison sentences.

That one-party rule can be highhanded is nothing new. In a lengthy interview, Mr. Huffman noted that when Ohio Democrats last controlled the Legislature, they presented Republicans with 6,000-page copies of the new state budget minutes before voting to approve it. And Democratic legislatures in states like California and Minnesota have pursued liberal agendas sometimes well to the left of many voters.

But the growing use of moves that defy norms of democratic behavior — expelling critics, ignoring court orders, thwarting ballot initiatives, curbing opponents’ legal authority — for now is a feature being seen in Republican legislatures, said Jacob M. Grumbach, a University of California, Berkeley scholar of state governance.

“It’s pretty asymmetric,” Mr. Grumbach said in an email exchange. “I can’t think of examples of serious norm erosion in blue states.”

As the August referendum suggests, abortion is Ohio’s issue of the moment. Polls show that close to six in 10 Ohioans favor abortion rights; the Legislature has outlawed abortions once a fetus demonstrates “cardiac activity,” a ban that is being challenged in the State Supreme Court.

Last month, proponents of an abortion-rights amendment to the State Constitution secured almost 500,000 verified signatures — well over the required minimum — to place an amendment overriding the Legislature’s law on the November ballot.

Thwarting that effort is at the root of the proposal to raise the threshold for approving a constitutional amendment to 60 percent from a simple majority. Supporters of abortion rights prevailed in all six ballot measures that were put to voters last year, including those in conservative states like Kentucky and Kansas. But none of those measures received more than 60 percent of the vote. (Ohio’s ballot measure would also require signatures from each of the state’s 88 counties, up from 44 now.)

In addition, the Legislature voted last year to do away with special elections in the dog days of August, because low turnouts during that time were often not representative ones. Then it scheduled the election on changing the rules for amendments in the same month.

But abortion is not the only issue on which legislators have taken extraordinary steps to reach the outcome they prefer.

In 2015 and 2018, seven in 10 voters approved Ohio Constitution amendments outlawing partisan gerrymanders and requiring that political maps fairly reflect the state’s partisan divide.

But in 2021, a redistricting commission led by Republican legislative leaders drew congressional and state legislative maps heavily favoring the Republican Party, and then sidestepped repeated orders by the Ohio Supreme Court to redraw them fairly. Last November, elections used maps that the court had ruled unconstitutional.

Or consider education: In November, voters replaced three conservative members of the elected State Board of Education with more liberal candidates backed by unionized teachers. Weeks later, Republican legislators proposed to shift control of education policy to the Republican governor, Mike DeWine, saying that would make the education bureaucracy more accountable.

That effort stalled. But legislators, undeterred, incorporated the change into the new Ohio budget that passed this summer.

In an interview, Mr. DeWine declined to address the Legislature’s political tactics, but said that focusing on controversial issues ignored a vast body of bipartisan work on issues including the budget, child welfare and improving students’ reading levels.

“That’s a lot more important, frankly, and affects a lot more kids than some of the issues you’re talking about,” he said.

Part of the explanation, political scholars say, is straightforward: Computer-aided gerrymandering has made it nearly impossible for voters to dislodge ruling supermajorities at a time when American politics has become more polarized and tribal.

Donald J. Trump won 53.3 percent of Ohio’s votes in the 2020 presidential election. But Republicans control 67 percent of seats in the State House — and 79 percent in the State Senate. Last November, 85 percent of Ohio’s state legislative races were uncontested or were won by 10 percentage points or more, according to data collected by Movement Labs, an advocacy group assisting state and local Democratic candidates.

And the Republican Party enjoys another advantage: Outside the state’s big cities, experts say, the Democratic Party is moribund, with a shrunken bench of potential candidates, weak local party organizations, little money and little chance of getting any since money tends to flow to incumbents.

Democratic critics say the result is policies well to the right of average voters.

“Many of the legislators right now — I’ve said this enough — are out of step with everyday Ohioans, absolutely,” said Nickie J. Antonio, the Senate minority leader and a Democrat from the Cleveland suburbs. Their aim, she said, is not only to reshape policy in the conservative mold, but also “to make everyone else toe the line.”

Mr. Huffman, a 63-year-old lawyer from Lima, in northwest Ohio — and, many say, Ohio’s most influential politician —

said the Legislature’s actions had been neither overly partisan nor out of step with ordinary Ohioans.

Republicans did not thwart court rulings on political maps, he said; they had a principled disagreement over the extent to which the State Constitution allows justices to dictate mapmaking. Stripping power from the State Board of Education was not political retribution, but something governors from both parties had considered since the 1980s, he said.

And the August referendum? A state commission recommended raising the vote threshold for approving amendments over a decade ago, he said.

“Why did it happen now?” he said. “Well, certainly because of the November issue” — the looming vote on an abortion-rights amendment — “but we’ve been trying to do it for 15 or 20 years.”

And if some decisions are unpopular with voters, Mr. Huffman added, a legislator’s job is to serve the broader public interest, not to be popular.

“We live in a representative democracy,” he said. “We see a poll come out that says 58 percent of Ohioans disapprove of this bill and 42 percent approve of it, and how could they be moving forward? Well, that’s not how decisions get made in government, not based on the whims of the day.”

But even some longtime Republicans say the party is playing a dangerous game.

Scott Milburn, who was a top aide to Governor Kasich, said that political gambits like the Legislature’s turnabout on August elections risked creating precedents that Democrats could embrace if they regained power. Reining in gerrymandering and overhauling the election system, he said, could help prevent that.

“Structural reform to the way we elect people,” he said, “is the kind of thing that prevents this whiplash back and forth” between ruling parties. The potential alternative, he said, is “‘live by the sword, die by the sword’ — a hundred times over.”

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