Proposal Would Make It Harder To Get Citizen Initiatives On Ohio Ballots

Nov 9, 2017

If Issue 2 had passed on Tuesday night, it would have been only the fourth time in Ohio history that a law brought to the ballot by an individual or a group was approved by voters. There’s a new effort to make changes in that process.

The process to take a proposed law first to state lawmakers and then to voters is called the initiated statute. It’s a challenge that’s so tough, many activists and groups don’t even try it.

“There’s only been 12 even attempted since the Constitution allowed for them in 1912," said Tracy Sabetta, who worked on one of the three successful initiated statute campaigns in Ohio history.

She was part of the coalition of health groups that got voters to approve the total indoor smoking ban in 2006. The other two successful statutes were approved in 1933 and 1949.

Sabetta notes the smoking ban fight was especially hard because opponents drafted a constitutional amendment for a smoking ban with exceptions, and it was on the same ballot.

If both had passed, the amendment with exceptions would have nullified the smoking ban law. Cigarette maker RJ Reynolds raised five times the amount that the health groups spent, but its amendment failed while the total ban passed.

"This wasn’t an out-of-state group coming in with lots of money, saying this is what we want to see," Sabetta said. "We had ordinances around the state that already prohibited smoking in public places. But they were different in all the different cities. And Ohioans were ready for one consistent policy.” 

In 2006, voters saw five state issues—four constitutional amendments and the smoking ban law. And one state lawmaker says it’s too easy for what he calls "special interests" to get onto Ohio’s ballot.

"They’re basically just subverting the people’s elected representatives and are using their money from their special interests to get on the ballot in Ohio. And I think that’s wrong,” said Rep. Niraj Antani (R-Miamisburg).

Antani has proposed a resolution to change the process to bring amendments or laws to the ballot by people and groups. It would raise the number of required signatures by 25 percent, ban payment for signature gatherers and increase the threshold of votes needed to pass to 60 percent of voters.

Antani says the process is supposed to be used only when lawmakers aren’t doing their jobs, but he said it’s being abused.

"This initiative process is simply not working for Ohioans. So now, the way that we’re going to restore power to the people is by blocking these out-of-state special interests from coming into Ohio and buying our ballot,” Antani said.

There have been 17 constitutional amendments brought before Ohio voters by individuals or groups in the last 20 years, and only five were approved. By contrast, state lawmakers have put 19 amendments on the ballot in that time, and 14 have been adopted.

Rob Walgate with the Ohio Roundtable worked on the successful 1992 campaign for a term limits amendment and then campaigned against the various casino gambling amendments. He says Antani’s proposal is a big problem, especially the parts about requiring more signatures and not allowing campaigns to pay people to gather them.

“Right there, you just eliminated every ballot issue that we’ve seen," Walgate says. "Not that you should be out there buying each and every signature, but it’s a process. And when you have to get over 400,000 valid signatures for a constitutional amendment, that’s work."

Walgate also takes issue with the requirement that amendments pass with 60 percent of the vote.  

"I don’t agree with the 60 percent rule," he says. "What else do we do as a state that takes 60 percent?”

Catherine Turcer of Common Cause Ohio has also worked on several campaigns on redistricting and other electoral changes. She’s also bothered by the ban on hiring workers to gather signatures.

“The goal is, yes, as much as possible we like to do a volunteer effort. But it is tremendously difficult," Turcer said. "And I just think, when it comes to money in politics, the cash flows when it comes to political advertisements, and yet you don’t want a grassroots effort to pay their staff?”

But Turcer says overall she’s not too concerned.

“It is funny the things we worry about that are all talk, which I do think this particular legislative proposal has to be, because it’s so clearly unconstitutional,” she said.

Antani’s resolution is a constitutional amendment and would have to be approved by lawmakers and then presented to voters. But if it is, a simple majority “yes” vote would mean it passes – not the 60 percent approval that the resolution would require of future ballot issues from citizens and groups.