Abortion Drives Ohio Election on Amending the State Constitution

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For over a century, Ohio voters have had the ability to amend the State Constitution with a simple majority vote. However, this may change if the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature has their way. They have called for a special election that would raise the bar for amendments from a simple majority to 60 percent of the vote. The reason behind this move is no secret – since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, voters across the country have supported ballot measures protecting the right to abortion. A similar election is scheduled for November in Ohio, and legislators hope that the higher threshold for passing amendments will lead to its defeat.

This move by the Ohio Legislature has faced significant backlash. Former governors and other former officeholders, regardless of political affiliation, have made bipartisan statements denouncing it. Former Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, took to Twitter in April to express his disapproval, stating that he would never have considered limiting Ohioans’ right to express their views. Ohio, once considered a swing state, has now become an example of a nationwide trend where one-party-controlled legislatures, usually Republican ones, change the rules of the democratic process to further extend their control.

In 2022, 39 states, the most in at least three decades, have single-party control of the governor’s office and legislature. Additionally, 29 states, 20 of which have Republican majorities, have veto-proof supermajorities controlling both houses of the state legislatures. This concentration of power, often accompanied by gerrymandering, has given these legislatures extraordinary influence and the ability to maintain their hold on power.

The use of tactics that defy democratic norms, such as expelling critics, disregarding court orders, and curbing opponents’ legal authority, is increasingly prevalent in Republican-led legislatures. Jacob M. Grumbach, a scholar of state governance at the University of California, Berkeley, observes that this erosion of democratic norms is predominantly seen in Republican-controlled legislatures, with few examples of such behavior in Democratic-controlled states.

Abortion is a significant issue in Ohio at the moment, with polls showing that nearly six in 10 Ohioans support abortion rights. The State Supreme Court is currently considering a ban on abortions once a fetus shows “cardiac activity.” In response, proponents of an abortion-rights amendment to the State Constitution gathered the required number of signatures to place the amendment on the ballot in November. The proposed increase in the threshold for approving constitutional amendments is an attempt to thwart this effort. While supporters of abortion rights have prevailed in several ballot measures across the country, none of these measures received more than 60 percent of the vote.

Legislators in Ohio have also taken extraordinary measures to achieve the outcomes they desire in other areas. In 2021, a redistricting commission, led by Republican legislative leaders, drew heavily gerrymandered political maps despite multiple court orders to redraw them fairly. Education is another area where legislators have sought to exert control. Despite voters replacing conservative members of the State Board of Education with more liberal candidates, Republican lawmakers proposed shifting control of education policy to the Republican governor. While this effort did not succeed, similar attempts were made through the state budget.

The rise of one-party rule can be attributed, in part, to computer-aided gerrymandering, which has made it difficult for voters to challenge ruling supermajorities. In Ohio, even though Donald J. Trump won 53.3 percent of the votes in the 2020 presidential election, Republicans control a significant majority of seats in the State House and Senate. Moreover, 85 percent of state legislative races in Ohio last November were uncontested or won by large margins, making it challenging for Democrats to compete. The Democratic Party faces significant challenges outside of urban areas, with weak local party organizations and limited funding.

Critics argue that many Republican legislators are out of touch with everyday Ohioans and are pushing policies that run counter to their interests. Republican Senate Minority Leader Nickie J. Antonio states that legislators aim not only to shape policy in a conservative mold but also to force others to conform. On the other hand, Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman defends the Legislature’s actions, claiming they are not too partisan and are aligned with the concerns of ordinary Ohioans.

Overall, the move to increase the threshold for approving constitutional amendments and the use of various tactics to consolidate power and advance partisan interests highlight the need for safeguarding democratic practices and institutions. These developments in Ohio and other states serve as a reminder of the importance of upholding norms and ensuring that the democratic process remains accessible and fair to all citizens.

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