The saga of bad democratic policy at the Ohio General Assembly continues—a saga that threatens our environment, too.
Recently, I discussed the implications of House Joint Resolution 1, an attack on Ohioans’ historical right to direct democracy. HJR 1 now has a counterpart in the Senate: Senate Joint Resolution 2 (SJR 2). And we have two new bills to watch, proposing to create an August special election specifically for this bad constitutional amendment: Senate Bill 92 and House Bill 144.
Direct democracy is a tradition in Ohio. The act of gathering signatures for an issue we care about—then placing that issue on the ballot—it’s fundamental to how our democracy works. And Ohioans don’t pass constitutional amendments lightly. In fact, many constitutional amendments fail once on the ballot.
HJR 1’s main edit to the Ohio Constitution proposes to increase the threshold for constitutional amendments to pass up to 60%. However, HJR 1 makes another change, and it’s significant.
Right now, when Ohioans want to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, they must acquire signatures equal to 5% of the population that voted in the last governor’s election in at least 44 counties across Ohio. That requirement supplements the need to gather a number of signatures equal to 10% of the population that voted in the last governor’s election. HJR 1 would require signature gathering efforts to gather that 5% signature requirement from all 88 counties.
Outcry against HJR 1 has been nearly unanimous. Editorial boards across the state, including the Columbus Dispatch, have criticized the Ohio General Assembly’s tactics over the past few months. And the tactics have gotten even more strange.
In late March, members of the Ohio General Assembly proposed creating an August special election (via HB 144 and SB 92) solely for the purpose of having Ohioans vote on HJR 1. Their reasoning for this timeline is quite transparent—they want the increased voting threshold of 60% to be in effect in advance of a November 2023 General Election. Right now, advocates are gathering signatures for a ballot initiative in support of reproductive rights that, if they gather enough signatures, will be on the November ballot. Several members of the General Assembly don’t like the content of that ballot initiative, so they’re playing games to slip it into law covertly.
August special elections are some of the lowest voter turnout elections Ohio experiences. Oftentimes less than ten percent of a jurisdiction’s voters show up during special elections. Thus, if Ohioans voted on HJR 1 during an August special election, it’s quite possible less than ten percent of the state’s voters could decide the future of direct democracy in this state.
While HJR 1 is definitely bad policy for Ohioans, if it is to be put to a vote, it should occur during a General Election, not during a Special Election. Elections cost money, time, and resources, and this attack against direct democracy is simply a waste of all three of those things.
The lawmakers behind HJR 1 claim they proposed it to stop “special interests” from amending the Ohio Constitution. The reality is, their actions speak much louder than their words.
They’ve provided no evidence that special interests buy constitutional amendments, nor have they provided evidence that the proposed change would actually make it harder for special interests to buy said amendments.
Instead, their actions have made it clear that HJR 1 is designed to stop Ohioans from changing the law in the absence of a responsive legislature. The primary sponsor of then-HJR 6 revealed the truth back in December in a letter he sent to his colleagues in the Ohio General Assembly—he specifically urged them to support the amendment to stop future amendments on abortion and gerrymandering.
At the Ohio Environmental Council, we believe a healthy environment will only exist if we have a healthy democracy. There may come a time where Ohioans must put environmental issues on the ballot through a citizen-initiated constitutional amendment. Proposed amendments like HJR 1—and their deceptive electoral vehicles, like HB 144—put the health of our democracy and environment in serious jeopardy.