Ohio Supreme Court OKs August election for plan to make it harder to amend constitution

The Ohio Supreme Court listens to oral arguments in February.
The Ohio Supreme Court listens to oral arguments in February.
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Ohio can proceed with an August election for voters to decide whether it should be harder to amend the state constitution, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled Friday.

In a 4-3 ruling, the Republican-leaning court determined that lawmakers legally set an Aug. 8 election for Issue 1. If approved, the measure would require 60% of voters to enact new constitutional amendments, instead of a simple majority of 50% plus one.

Issue 1 would also change the signature-gathering process citizens must follow to place amendments on the ballot. It requires citizen groups to get voter signatures from all 88 counties, instead of 44, to place an amendment on the ballot. And it would eliminate a 10-day period that petitioners are granted to replace any invalid signatures.

The One Person One Vote coalition sued Secretary of State Frank LaRose in May and asked the court to direct LaRose to scrap the Aug. 8 election. The group contends it's not legal because of Ohio's new voting law, which limits when August special elections can be held.

Instead, advocates argued, amendments proposed by the Legislature must appear on the ballot during a November general election or spring primary.

"Today's ruling is disappointing, but the choice before voters remains the same no matter when we vote: Preserve majority rule in Ohio, or dismantle it," said Dennis Willard, a spokesman for the coalition. "We’re confident Ohio voters will see Issue 1 for the scam that it is: a corrupt power grab by special interests and politicians."

Republicans initially intended to pass a separate bill to expand August special elections, but they ditched that plan after it faced opposition in the House. GOP leaders said the Legislature still had the authority to set an election through Senate Joint Resolution 2, the vehicle for the proposal to change the voter threshold.

The bill also would've given LaRose's office $20 million to run the election. Senate Republicans included $16 million in their version of the state budget to pay back those costs.

A spokesman for LaRose declined to comment on Friday's ruling.

What did the Ohio Supreme Court say?

The Ohio Constitution says lawmakers can put ballot questions before voters at "either a special or a general election as the General Assembly may prescribe." Republican justices said that rule trumps the new voting law, meaning they could set the election through a joint resolution.

"It leaves to the General Assembly the details − like the date of the special election − to be established in pursuance of its authority to call for a vote of citizens on the amendment," the majority stated.

Justice Pat Fischer, a Republican, agreed with the decision but declined to sign on to his colleagues' opinion. He did not issue a separate explanation of his ruling.

The court's Democrats dissented, saying the Legislature is obligated to follow the rules it creates. Justice Michael Donnelly said lawmakers don't have "unlimited power" and must set laws, including elections, through legislation instead of a resolution.

"Rather than changing the law, the General Assembly and respondent, Secretary of State Frank LaRose, want to be told that the Ohio Constitution allows the General Assembly to break its own laws," Donnelly wrote in his dissent. "Rather than doing the work themselves, they want this court to fix their mess and do their work for them."

In a separate ruling on Monday, the court ordered the Ohio Ballot Board to rewrite some of the ballot language for Issue 1 after advocates argued it's misleading and inaccurate. The board met Tuesday to address the ruling and approved new language.

Haley BeMiller is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Ohio Supreme Court rules in favor of Ohio August special election