Ohioans will finish voting on Tuesday on a referendum with an ostensibly straightforward question: Should it be harder to amend the State Constitution?
But the results could have far-reaching consequences for another, more explosive issue on the ballot in November: whether to establish a right to abortion.
That subtext has turned what would normally be a sleepy summer election on an off year into a highly visible dogfight that has taken on national importance and already drawn nearly 600,000 early voters.
The few polls taken leave it unclear which side has an edge, and there are plausible scenarios in favor of both.
Who is behind the referendum, and why?
The Republican-led State Legislature ordered the referendum, known as Issue 1, this spring in a vote that was largely along party lines. Proponents argued that it is too easy for special interests to rewrite the State Constitution to their benefit.
“Attempting to amend Ohio’s Constitution is a lucrative business, and moneyed interests see Ohio as an easy mark,” State Representative Brian Stewart, who sponsored the resolution ordering the referendum, said during a debate in early May.
But Republicans soon conceded that the referendum was really prompted by something else: the November effort to add an abortion-rights amendment to the Constitution, and the success last year of six ballot proposals across the country protecting abortion after Roe v. Wade was overturned.
Ohio’s proposed amendment is the product of a grass roots campaign mounted after the Legislature enacted one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion bans last year. (It has not yet taken effect, as the State Supreme Court is reviewing the measure.)
Tuesday’s referendum “is 100 percent about keeping a radical, pro-abortion amendment out of our Constitution,” Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican candidate for a U.S. Senate seat in 2024, said in a speech in June.
What does it take to amend the State Constitution, and how would that change?
Since 1912, when Ohioans authorized ballot initiatives at a constitutional convention, adding an amendment has required approval by a simple majority of voters. The new referendum would raise that threshold to 60 percent.
That is a high bar to clear. Historical records show that only about one in three amendments submitted to Ohio voters has gotten more than 60 percent of the vote, according to the political data aggregator Ballotpedia. For example, a 1918 Prohibition amendment banning alcohol sales in the state gained but 51.41 percent of the vote.
But it is not impossible: Two amendments that sought to prohibit political gerrymandering of state legislative and congressional districts, in 2015 and 2018, were approved by about 75 percent of voters.
Polls indicate that the abortion-rights amendment is very likely to win approval by a simple majority. But 60 percent would likely be a stretch; none of the six abortion-related referendums in other states last year managed to reach that level.
The measure at issue on Tuesday would not just make it harder for voters to approve amendments; it also would make it tougher to get them on the ballot, requiring petitioners to gather signatures from 5 percent of eligible voters in each of Ohio’s 88 counties, instead of the current 44.
Who have been the loudest voices on either side?
The fight over the referendum has not only energized abortion-rights supporters and the anti-abortion movement. It has also attracted ideological allies on both sides of the issue.
Major supporters of higher thresholds for future amendments, led by the group Protect Our Constitution, had raised $15.6 million as of late July, according to Ballotpedia. The biggest donors include Richard Uihlein, the billionaire co-founder of the packaging and supply company Uline and a major contributor to conservative causes who donated $4 million; the national anti-abortion advocacy group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America; and Roman Catholic Church dioceses in Ohio’s three largest cities.
Major support also has come from the Buckeye Firearms Association, an Ohio pro-gun group with an interest in discouraging initiatives that could limit access to guns. And the movement has a prominent supporter in Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, who said in an interview that he cast a “yes” vote last week.
“It seems to me that it’s not a radical or crazy idea that you should require a supermajority to change the constitution of Ohio when, for over 200 years, that’s been the rule for the U.S. Constitution,” he said.
On the other side, abortion-rights advocates have been joined by voting-rights organizations, unions and scores of other groups. Ohio’s four living former governors, two from each party, have urged that proposal be voted down, as have the state Libertarian and Green Parties. The main coalition opposing raising the bar for passage, One Person One Vote, reported last week that it had raised $14.8 million.
The executive director of Common Cause Ohio, Catherine Turcer, noted that the 1912 constitutional convention that birthed the current amendment provisions sought to check a corrupt and unaccountable government.
Now, in the wake of perhaps the biggest corruption scandal in state government history — the racketeering conviction of the former House speaker Larry L. Householder for accepting $60 million in bribes — “the State Legislature should choose to actually make changes that create greater transparency and greater accountability,” Ms. Turcer said. “But they’re not. Instead, they’re playing around with the rules.”
What do we know about turnout so far?
The turnout has been more than double the number of people who cast early votes in a regular primary election in May 2022 — and that election included contests for governor and the U.S. House.
But it’s unclear which side that will help. “Most people will concede there is higher energy on the ‘no’ side,” said Curt Steiner, a former Republican political strategist who is advising abortion-rights groups on the November proposal.
But that could be offset by Ohio’s voting rules, which some analysts say are tilted in Republicans’ favor.
One wrinkle potentially looms large: Two-thirds of all early ballots were cast in person — that is, at polling places. But Ohio law allows in-person early voting at only one location in each county, meaning that the 870,000 registered voters in heavily Democratic Cuyahoga County, home to Cleveland, are allotted the same number of polling places as the 41,000 registered voters in heavily Republican Lawrence County, on the state’s southern border.
What does the vote mean beyond Ohio?
Beyond abortion, political analysts say Ohio’s vote could be a major moment in an ongoing tug of war nationwide over how much power ordinary voters should have over elected legislators.
Republican-led legislatures have increasingly sought to rein in ballot initiatives, mostly without success, in the last decade. Those efforts have ramped up since the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe. v. Wade, said Sarah Walker, the director of legal and policy advocacy at the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a nonprofit advocacy group.
“What happens in Ohio is likely to shape the contours of what that debate looks like going forward,” she said.