With abortion possibly on Nov. ballot, Ohio GOP revives measures to make it harder to amend Constitution

With abortion possibly on Nov. ballot, Ohio GOP revives measures to make it harder to amend constitution
Posted at 7:34 PM, Mar 27, 2023

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The resolution to make it harder to amend the Ohio Constitution has been revived, just in time for voters to very likely choose if abortion should be legal in the state.

Fast Facts

House Joint Resolution 1 is the revived resolution to make it harder to amend the Ohio constitution. Previously called H.J.R. 6 in previous General Assembly (the 134th, for those keeping count), it would require those petitions to receive a 60% supermajority vote to pass, instead of the simple 50% +1. This means that about 40% of the state would get to choose the law.

"H.J.R. 1 is unnecessary, it's undemocratic, it's also unpopular," said Jen Miller with the League of Women Voters of Ohio on Monday.

More than 170 bipartisan groups joined together to fight it back in December. It failed swiftly, much to the dismay of state Rep. Brian Stewart (R-Ashville). At that time, he vowed it would come back in the 135th G.A. Now, the resolution that united both sides of the aisle against it is back.

New effort

Even more individuals and groups are against the resolution this time around.

"We have about 200 allies from all over Ohio, from unions to faith groups, good government organizations and others who oppose this attack on our right to amend the Constitution when lawmakers don't address our needs," Miller said.

A few groups are publicly supporting the resolution. One of them is Ohio Right to Life, an organization dedicated to ending abortion.

"We need to prevent out-of-state interest groups, whether they be liberal interest groups or conservative interest groups, from coming into Ohio," said Mike Gonidakis, president of the group.

But some opponents of the resolution say it's about one thing — abortion.

Abortion on the ballot

Ohioans will likely vote on whether abortion should be legal this November. Activists are now gathering signatures to get the measure on the ballot.

Ohioans for Reproductive Freedom and Ohio Physicians for Reproductive Rights quickly passed major hurdles of getting the language of their citizen-led constitutional amendment approved and getting it certified by the state's ballot board.

Advocates must collect signatures from 44 out of 88 counties equal to at least 5% of the total vote cast for the office of governor in that county at the last gubernatorial election. Overall, the petition must gather at least 10% of the total vote cast statewide for the office of governor at the last gubernatorial election. This math means that the group needs at least 442,958 valid signatures.

How H.J.R. 1 relates to abortion

Experts closely watching the legislature say lawmakers that support H.J.R. 1 are trying to streamline their resolution to get out ahead of that November vote. But Gonidakis, who has been working closely with the Republicans trying to push it through, denied there is anything suspicious about the timing.

"There's never a convenient time and there's never an inconvenient time to have a vote of the people of the state of Ohio," he said.

But in December, a leaked email obtained by News 5 showed that Stewart put the bill forward to specifically address abortion being put on the ballot.

House Constitutional Resolutions committee meeting
COLUMBUS, Ohio — MARCH 22: State Rep. Tavia Galonski, D-Akron, holds up a memo by State Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, during the House Constitutional Resolutions committee meeting first hearing on HJR 1 that would require 60% vote to approve any constitutional amendment, March 22, 2023, at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal)

"After decades of Republicans’ work to make Ohio a pro-life state, the Left intends to write abortion on demand into Ohio’s Constitution," the lawmaker wrote. "If they succeed, all the work we accomplished by multiple Republican majorities will be undone."

The 60% is important, abortion rights activists said in a previous interview with News 5. Here are the percentages that abortion was protected in other states:

  • Kentucky — 52.3%
  • Montana — 52.5%
  • Michigan — 56.6%
  • Kansas — 59%
  • California — 66%
  • Vermont — 76.7%

People may be skeptical of the timeline, Gonidakis said, but he has been advocating for changing the Constitution since gambling and casinos were put on the ballot, he said.
"I understand because we are the tip of the spear right now in Ohio Right to Life," he added. "But make no mistake, after us, it's going to be somebody else... I can't stress enough that protecting our Constitution applies to large businesses, small businesses in Ohio, farmers, pro-lifers, anyone."

This was one of the reasons why Gonidakis met with some business leaders about the resolution.

A meeting of the (unchanged) minds

A group of lawmakers met with business leaders and other special interest groups on Thursday.

In attendance were state Reps. Stewart and Scott Wiggam (R-Wayne County), plus three members of House leadership, according to individuals who were in the meeting and Statehouse lobbyists in the building. It is worth noting that Speaker Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill) was not in attendance.

Joined by Gonidakis and another lobbyist, that squad met with the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, the Ohio Business Roundtable and the Ohio chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB).

The meeting went well, Gonidakis said.

"I think there was a collective agreement with the business community, our friends in the Second Amendment, the Right to Life groups and other associations that said, 'yes, we need to look at how we currently allow out-of-state groups to come into Ohio,'" he said. "So there was unanimity in the room."

The Ohio Business Roundtable denied this, as they did back in December when the team was forced to clarify they did not support H.J.R. 6 after Stewart wrote that the resolution "is supported by Ohio Right to Life, the Center for Christian Virtue (CCV), the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and the Ohio Business Roundtable."

"While the Ohio business community has previously pursued language that would establish guardrails to protect Ohio’s Constitution from out-of-state interests, the Ohio Business Roundtable did not provide any input for the language contained in the ballot reform initiatives pursued in the final months of 2022, nor the current proposals," Alexandra Denney, VP of Communications and Government Relations, told News 5. "The Ohio Business Roundtable has not taken a position on HJR1 or any other ballot initiative proposals that have been introduced."

The Chamber also denied choosing sides.

“The Ohio Chamber of Commerce hasn’t taken a position on either of the pending ballot reform initiatives, at this time," said Senior VP of Government Affairs for the Chamber and former state lawmaker Rick Carfagna. "We have had conversations with Rep. Stewart and House leadership on ballot access guardrails we feel would be helpful. We are continuing to canvas our membership on whether we should get engaged and the best path forward on reforms.”

The twist

Democrats argue that holding a special election in August further shows that this is about abortion.

"We just voted to not have those anymore, just a few months ago," Speaker Stephens told reporters.

Stephens explained lawmakers chose to eliminate special elections in August because they cost about $20 million — plus they have low turnout. Now, a new GOP bill has been introduced that would allow these elections under "certain" circumstances, one that this resolution would fall under.

"The county election officials I've talked to are not interested in having it," the speaker added. "I'm frankly not interested in having an election in August — it's the cost of the taxpayers."

Stephens is now having to defend himself against allegations of being pro-abortion, a tweet from Friday seems to suggest.

"Let me be abundantly clear. I am and have always been 100% Pro-Life. I will stand for life at every turn; however, I am not for changing the rules willy nilly at a whim when it comes to changing our constitution," he tweeted.

This also comes as other GOP lawmakers accuse him of siding with Democrats. In an exclusive TV interview with Minority Leader Allison Russo (D-Upper Arlington), she explained that the Democrats chose Stephens to be speaker due to agreements, compromises and known Democratic wants. H.J.R. 6 was one of the bills the pair seemed to have an understanding on, she said.

No matter the GOP shenanigans going on behind the scenes, Miller is fed up.

"We're having a shocking about-face where just in December, a law passed that would limit our August special elections — and now they're talking about doing one," she said. "And really, the only reason to do an August special election is because they can't get lawmakers together to pass this highly unpopular, undemocratic and unfair piece of legislation."

The resolution will continue to have hearings this week.

Follow WEWS statehouse reporter Morgan Trau on Twitter and Facebook.