WASHINGTON — In a closely watched ballot measure on Tuesday, Ohio Republicans asked voters to vote away some of their power.
It did not work.
The decisive rejection of the initiative, which would have made it harder for voters to change the state Constitution, has been widely seen as evidence of the motivating power of abortion rights in the run-up to 2024. Backers of the measure openly said they wanted to make it harder for voters to approve a constitutional right to abortion on the ballot in November, and both sides spent millions campaigning around the measure on the issue.
But the lopsided rejection in a red state, with 57 percent opposed, also reveals the enduring power of an intertwined dynamic that has helped liberal candidates and causes notch victories since 2020: an urgency among voters to beat back what they see as threats to democracy.
“Pro-life/pro-choice was the number one issue, but I think there was also an awareness that if it passed, voters would lose their voting power,” said former governor Bob Taft, a Republican who opposed the measure. “Why should I support that as a voter?”
The Ohio result could be a warning sign to national Republicans. The GOP presidential primary has been dominated by former president Donald Trump, who has continued his denial of the 2020 election results and has called for changes to voting rules — such as ending early voting — that he thinks would help him win.
It also suggests that, even in the country’s hyper-polarized political landscape, there may be limits to at least some voters’ willingness to let their elected officials try to consolidate political power.
“I think in part because the threats to the democratic process are more prominent than ever, voters are getting savvier and recognizing the stakes more and showing up,” said Justin Levitt, a law professor at Loyola Marymount with a focus on the Constitution.
It is the latest setback for state-level Republicans who have sought to roll back the gains of causes such as abortion rights and Medicaid expansion by curbing the citizen-led initiatives that can advance them in red states. Last year, voters in Arkansas and South Dakota defeated similar initiatives to the one that went down Tuesday in Ohio, although Republican-controlled legislatures have found other ways, such as raising signature requirements, to nibble away at citizen initiatives.
It also comes after a number of election-denying candidates for governor and secretary of state, who campaigned on promises to change the rules of voting, lost 2022 midterm races in Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Nevada.
“I think there’s a through line between the results in November and the results in Ohio,” said Jessica Mardsen, of the civil society group Protect Democracy. “It’s becoming clear that voters don’t like when politicians try to change the rules, and they recognize [those efforts] for what they are, which is a power grab.”
Issue 1, as the Ohio measure was known, was placed on the ballot by the Republican-controlled Legislature in May. Proponents had argued it would keep out-of-state interests from being able to easily change the Constitution. But it was widely seen as an effort to stymie a citizen-led referendum in November that would, if it passes, enshrine new protections for abortion rights in the state constitution.
“This is 100 percent about keeping a radical pro-abortion amendment out of our Constitution,” Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican who is running for Senate, said in June. Opponents of the measure seized on those comments, fully aware since the fall of Roe v. Wade last year of the power of abortion to unite moderate and progressive voters. That has powered victories for candidates and ballot measures promising new protections in red and purple states Wisconsin, Kansas, and beyond.
Particularly galling to voters and other opponents of the measure was the fact that the Legislature decided to place the effort on the ballot in August, just months after voting to do away with most August elections because the turnout is typically so low.
“I think [voters] detected that this was an attempt to whistle past the graveyard and to get something done in an election time in August, when they could do it without anyone really realizing what was going to happen,” said Betty Montgomery, a former Ohio attorney general and another Republican who publicly opposed the measure.
Advocates made the case that a right Ohio voters have had for more than a century — the ability to change the Constitution with a majority vote — was on the line. The measure set an onerous new requirement to put amendments on the ballot, requiring a certain number of signatures from all of Ohio’s 88 counties, and making it impossible address signatures deemed invalid. And it raised the threshold for success to 60 percent of the vote.
“Clearly, direct democracy was being attacked, because the ability to gather folks together and collect signatures and take issues directly to the ballot was really in jeopardy,” said Catherine Turcer, the executive director of Common Cause Ohio. “We would have been left with a right that couldn’t really have been used.”
Defenders of Issue 1 say the criticisms are unfair. They argue the motivation predates the downfall of Roe v. Wade and are more about the principle that amending a state constitution should be subject to a higher threshold than changing the law. Tyler Herrmann, chair of the state chapter of the Republican National Lawyers Association, which endorsed Issue 1, said he believes constitutions should be somewhat hard to change. Even if Issue 1 had passed, he noted, Ohio voters still would have been able to change laws — as opposed to the Constitution — with a simple majority vote.
”Constitutions are the foundational, fundamental law — they are meant to contain the minimum level of detail necessary to organize the functions of government and to protect individual liberty,” Herrman said. “They are not the right place for individual policy decisions.”
The federal government, he noted, makes it exceedingly difficult to change the US Constitution. Amending the Constitution requires support of two-thirds of states or Congress to be proposed, and must be ratified by three-quarters of states to succeed. Even passing laws in Congress requires more than a bare majority as the Senate requires 60 out of 100 votes to move legislation forward.
But Democrats seized on the Republican admissions that they were motivated at least in part by the upcoming abortion measure and lacked the votes to seek the threshold change until the opportunity to place it in the August election came up.
“I think a lot of folks get Ohio wrong because they assume it’s a red state and Republicans are a monolith,” said Justin Barasky, an Ohio-based Democratic consultant who previously managed Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown’s 2018 reelection campaign. “Not every Republican is for giving up their voice.”
Montgomery, the former Republican attorney general, is hoping Tuesday’s vote could clear a path for a different democratic reform: independent redistricting in the famously gerrymandered state.
“What this amendment process has shown us,” she said, “is that we need to remove this from the General Assembly and put it into an independent process.”
If the trend continues, Levitt said, it may be a healthy reminder for politicians that their power is not absolute.
“It’s nice for the public to remind people who’s actually in charge every once in a while,” Levitt said. “Sometimes folks in office need to remember that they work for us.”