The Ohio Supreme Court on Monday ordered a state panel back to work to fix language describing an August ballot proposal aimed at making it harder to amend the state’s constitution, after justices determined elements of the wording would mislead voters.
Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose immediately reconvened the Ohio Ballot Board for Tuesday afternoon.
Monday’s ruling was a partial victory for One Person One Vote, the campaign opposing Issue 1, which calls for raising the threshold for passing future constitutional amendments in Ohio from a simple majority to 60%. Amid loud protests, Statehouse Republicans advanced the issue and timed it to thwart an abortion rights issue in the works for this fall. That’s despite passing a law eliminating most August elections mere months earlier.
The high court ruled unanimously that the ballot board was wrong to describe the measure as increasing the standards to qualify ‘any’ constitutional amendment for the ballot. That’s because it imposes its steep new signature-gathering requirements only on citizen-initiated amendments, not on amendments advanced by the Ohio General Assembly. If passed, it would up the number of Ohio counties where ballot campaigns must gather names from 44 to all 88.
The ballot language also misdescribes the percentage of electors required in each county to qualify a citizen-led issue for the ballot. It’s 5% of those who voted in the last gubernatorial election, not 5% of all voters in that county.
Democrats pointed out the error to the ballot board, chaired by LaRose as state elections chief, but LaRose opted not to fix it in the moment. His fellow Republican, Attorney General Dave Yost, conceded to the mistake in court filings, but sought to minimize it as a mere technicality.
Justices disagreed, and ordered the ballot board to correct the error.
Where the court diverged was over whether it’s fair to say the proposal will be ‘elevating’ the standards for qualifying and passing future constitutional amendments in Ohio. One Person One Vote had argued that the term carries a positive connotation that could bias voters toward a ‘yes’ vote. They pushed for ‘raising’ or ‘heightening’ as more neutral verbs.
The Supreme Court’s four-member Republican majority ruled that ‘elevating’ could stay — on grounds that the other verbs suggested by opponents share overlapping definitions.
‘Distinguishing between them requires parsing minute differences in connotation,’ Chief Justice Sharon Kennedy wrote for the majority. ‘But such wordsmithing should be left to Secretary LaRose because it is not for this court to choose between words of the same meaning.’
The court’s three Democratic justices dissented, arguing that the phrasing doesn’t meet the required impartiality test.
‘Some might, not implausibly, call this restricting or curtailing or diminishing or limiting the power of the people to amend the Constitution,’ Justice Michael P. Donnelly wrote in a dissent joined by Justices Jennifer Brunner and Melody Stewart. ‘Instead, respondent Secretary of State Frank LaRose styles this as ‘elevating’ the standards to amend the Constitution. This word creates prejudice in favor of the measure.’
In a separate opinion, Brunner also argued that the measure places ‘onerous’ new requirements on citizen-led ballot initiatives that should be more clearly spelled out.<!–>