Ohio’s special election Tuesday could raise the threshold for amending the state’s constitution and have a potentially critical impact on the future of abortion rights in the state.
With few other elections happening in an off year, a ballot measure in Ohio that would enshrine abortion rights in its constitution will be one of the most closely watched elections in November 2023. But first, voters will decide this Tuesday whether a supermajority should be necessary for constitutional amendments, which could require abortion rights advocates to climb a steeper hill to achieve their goal this fall.
Here are three things to know ahead of Ohio’s special election Tuesday:
It’s the first of two key ballot measures in Ohio this year
Ohio voters will turn out at the polls twice in three months for ballot measures that will have long-lasting implications.
First, there’s the ballot measure being voted on in Tuesday’s special election. Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) and state Rep. Brian Stewart (R) last November proposed this measure, which would raise the threshold for amending the state constitution. They said at the time that the amendment was intended to counter the influence of special interests and out-of-state actors.
Second, there’s a ballot measure Nov. 8 that would enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution. The measure specifically states that Ohioans would have a “fundamental right to reproductive freedom” with “reasonable limits.”
The Aug. 8 vote comes despite state lawmakers having approved legislation that mostly banned holding special elections in August.
The lawmakers determined that holding special elections that month was too expensive and had too little turnout to be fair or worth having. But Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) went ahead and signed the resolution from Stewart following approval from the state Legislature, setting the Tuesday special election for raising the threshold to change the constitution. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled in June that the special election could move forward despite the law.
Abortion rights advocates, meanwhile, had proposed the second ballot measure, which seeks to protect abortion rights, after the state’s six-week ban on the practice was temporarily blocked amid legal battles. The ban had gone into effect after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last June, but was put on hold in September.
A representative for Ohioans for Reproductive Freedom, which proposed the abortion ballot measure, told The Hill last week that they do not expect to ultimately win the case, so it turned to the ballot measure.
Abortion rights advocates were able to gather more than 700,000 signatures to put the abortion measure on the ballot in November—about 300,000 more than necessary. LaRose certified that enough signatures had been obtained late last month.
It’s seen as a direct response to November abortion measure
The amendment being voted on Tuesday, called Issue 1, would implement three policies that would make passing future amendments — including the November abortion rights measure — more difficult.
If approved, Issue 1 would require that, effective immediately, amendments would need to receive support from at least 60 percent of voters instead of the current threshold of a simple majority in order to go into effect.
It would also require that, starting Jan. 1, petitions for constitutional amendments receive signatures from at least 5 percent of voters in all 88 of Ohio’s counties, based on how many people voted in the last gubernatorial election. Petitions currently only need to receive support from that amount in half of the state’s counties.
Lastly, the measure would eliminate a 10-day period that a petitioner has after submitting a petition for an amendment to obtain additional signatures if some of their signatures are determined to be invalid. That would also go into effect Jan. 1.
Abortion rights activists have argued that Issue 1 was specifically designed to prevent the abortion rights measure from passing in November, as polls show a majority of Ohioans would vote to protect rights to the procedure.
LaRose has mostly argued that Issue 1 is about protecting the constitution, but he faced controversy for saying at one point that it is “100 percent about keeping a radical pro-abortion amendment out of our constitution.”
Lauren Blauvelt, the vice president of government affairs and public advocacy at Planned Parenthood Advocates of Ohio, told The Hill last week that her coalition reached enough signatures in 55 counties — considerably more than the current requirement — for the abortion measure to qualify for the November ballot. She argued that requiring signatures from all 88 counties would make citizens being able to put forward a ballot measure “impossible.”
Those advocating in favor of Issue 1, most of whom are Republican, have argued that putting these rules in place is necessary to stop special interests from being able to influence a governing document as powerful as the state’s constitution.
GOP strategist Mark Weaver argued that only having a simple majority to amend the constitution is a “very low bar.” His firm has produced some ads encouraging people to vote “yes” on the Aug. 8 ballot.
The current system for constitutional amendments in Ohio has operated since the modern constitution went into effect in 1912.
Both are part of nationwide battle over abortion rights
The fight over abortion in Ohio is just the latest in an extensive struggle over access to abortion in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe.
Regardless of whether Issue 1 passes Tuesday, the abortion amendment passing in November would undoubtedly be a major win for abortion rights advocates in a state that moved to ban the procedure after Dobbs.
Referenda have been held in a half-dozen states on abortion access questions over the past year. In each of those votes, the side in favor of abortion rights won.
A measure to state that the Kansas constitution does not protect abortion rights failed last August, in the first major test on abortion rights in the post-Roe world.
Voters in Vermont and California, two solidly liberal states, comfortably approved measures to codify abortion rights in their state constitutions in November, further safeguarding protections already protected through state law.
Michigan voters also approved a state constitutional amendment to protect access to abortion, overturning an almost century-old state ban that went into effect after Dobbs. At the same time, measures that would have put additional restrictions on abortion were narrowly rejected in the conservative-leaning states of Kentucky and Montana.
If the Ohio abortion rights amendment passes in November, it would be a major win for liberals in a state that has been trending red for years.
Jeff Rusnak, an Ohio strategist supporting the abortion amendment, told The Hill last week that the Tuesday measure can be a “change election” that sets the stage for November.
Advocates are also engaging in efforts to put abortion rights on the ballot in several other states.
Those on both sides of Issue 1 have said they expect higher turnout than usual for a special election, given the attention that has been given to it.