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Ohio's fight over State Issue 1 just one part of a larger national battle over ballot issues

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Ohio is teed up for a political fight over ballot initiatives this summer, after Republican Ohio lawmakers voted last month to set an Aug. 8 election to make it harder to change the state constitution.

But Ohio is just part of a broader national battle over ballot issues, generally pitting Republican state lawmakers against backers of left-leaning policies, many of which have fared well at the ballot box.

Ohio will be the third state in the past two years to hold a vote on raising its approval threshold for state constitutional amendments from 50% to 60%. Last year, Republican state legislators in Arkansas and South Dakota placed similar measures on the ballot. This year, Missouri nearly became the fourth state to do so —like in Ohio in response to a looming abortion-rights measure — but it unexpectedly failed to follow through before the end of its legislative session.

The fight over ballot issues began to pick up around a decade ago when a coordinated push happened across the country to use the process to expand Medicaid, the government-funded healthcare program for the poor and disabled.

It got hotter in response to progressive criminal-sentencing reform ballot measures across the country, like a 2018 ballot measure in Florida that restored voting-rights to people convicted of certain felonies.

And it’s intensified even more after the U.S. Supreme Court voted last year to overturn Roe v. Wade, setting off a series of abortion-rights related ballot measures in states across the country.

“This process began before Roe v. Wade,” said Sarah Walker, the policy and legal advocacy director for the progressive Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. “But it absolutely accelerated and magnified the issue, especially after reproductive victories happened across the country in red and blue states. We expect these attacks on democracy are going to continue.”

The trend has led progressive ballot issue organizations, which saw a string of successes across the country in direct votes to expand Medicaid eligibility and raise the minimum wage, to pivot into what they call “direct democracy defense” – helping fend off measures like the ones in Ohio, Arkansas and South Dakota.

“We think the outcome of what happens in Ohio will send a strong message one way or the other,” said Walker, whose group is advising the campaign to defeat the 60% measure. “And my hope is that it’s not in the best interest of those in power to try to undermine the will of the people through undermining the citizens initiative.”

State Issue 1, if voters approve it, would change the state constitution to require that future amendments get a 60% statewide supermajority in a statewide vote in order to pass.

That’s compared to the current 50% simple majority standard that’s been in place for more than a century. It also would make it harder for potential ballot issues to qualify by tightening mandatory signature-gathering requirements for amendment campaigns.

Voting “yes” on the issue would approve the change.

State Rep. Brian Stewart, a Pickaway County Republican who was instrumental in getting State Issue 1 on the ballot, said the measure is needed to head off left-wing policy that he said is out of step with Ohio.

Besides social issues, he cited ballot potential initiative pushes to end qualified immunity, the legal liability protection for police officers, and ranked-choice voting, which dramatically overhauls the system of choosing candidates through primary elections, and a possible future push to hike the minimum wage. All have been proposed, with varying degrees of seriousness, in Ohio.

“I would say over the last 15 years, there’s definitely been an increase in what a lot of Republicans and conservatives would consider to be far-left ballot proposals,” Stewart said. “Some have not passed, but there does seem to be a shift nationally and amongst liberal groups that they’re going to focus more of their energy and more of the national spending on trying to achieve through ballot campaigns destructive policies that they could never get through a state legislature.”

There’s also more one-off proposals, Stewart said, like the one former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder attempted to get on the ballot in 2020 that would have changed term limits in a way that would let him remain in office for another decade. Details of the scheme, which failed in large part due to the coronavirus pandemic, only came to light after Householder was arrested on federal corruption charges.

“It’s disturbing to see how easy it is to sort of buy a slot on the ballot,” Stewart said. “And once you’re there, a lot of things can happen. If the legislature gets it wrong, we can fix it. Once you put something in the constitution, it’s generally there to stay.”

Ohio is among the 19 U.S. states that allow voters to directly pass law changes, either through a constitutional amendment or through what’s called an initiated statute, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The other states are Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon and South Dakota. Each state has their own rules for the process, including different required percentages for amendments to be approved.

Interest groups, with increasing sophistication, have used the ballot initiative process for decades to advance their cause du jour. Ohio offers a representative cross-section. The state voted in 1992 to establish term limits for state lawmakers, it voted in 2004 to ban same-sex marriage and it voted in 2009 to legalize casino gambling.

In more recent years, Ohio voters recently have rejected well-funded, citizen-initiated amendment campaigns that have popped up elsewhere. In 2015, they rejected a marijuana legalization measure and in 2018, they rejected a measure that would have loosened criminal sentences for drug-related crimes. Proposed amendment campaigns fizzled in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, one that would have expanded voting rights and another that would have raised the minimum wage to $13 an hour.

One national group that works on ballot amendment campaigns is the Fairness Project, a progressive organization with ties to organized labor. It has advised successful campaigns raising the state minimum wage in nine states since 2016: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska and Washington, and expanding Medicaid eligibility in seven states: Idaho, Maine, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Idaho and South Dakota.

But last year, the Fairness Project pivoted to what it calls “ballot measure rescue campaigns.” It won in what so far are two major test cases for trying to make it harder to change state constitutions: helping defeat the proposals in Arkansas and South Dakota. The group boasts on its website that it’s won “31 of our 33 ballot measures to raise wages, stop predatory payday lenders, expand health care access, secure more paid time off, and other life-changing policies for more than 18 million people.”

The group is advising Ohio’s opposition campaign, said Desiree Tims, president of Innovation Ohio, a liberal think-tank in Columbus.

“They’re able to provide examples on what went right and what went wrong states, and how we can coordinate and convey information to the public,” said Tims, who sits on the Fairness Project’s advisory committee.

Arkansas’s ongoing fight over ballot issues

In Arkansas, voters in 2018 overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure hiking the state’s minimum wage from $8.50 an hour to $11 an hour. Voters also approved measures legalizing casino gambling and requiring photo ID to vote.

In 2020, voters approved a ballot measure setting term limits for state legislators. Lawmakers also put up for a vote an amendment that would tighten the rules for the signatures initiative campaigns must collect from voters in order to make the ballot. It failed.

But that didn’t stop lawmakers from trying again in 2022, referring the state’s 60% supermajority amendment for a vote.

State Rep. David Ray, a Republican who pushed for the measure, said at the time the higher threshold would “provide there is a genuine consensus among voters” when the state amends its constitution or passed an initiated statute.

“Our state constitution is entirely too easy to amend, and we should not amend it in sort of a willy-nilly fashion four, five, six times every two years like we currently do,” said Ray, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

The measure failed, obtaining just 41% from Arkansas voters. It appeared on the ballot alongside another, extremely-well financed marijuana legalization amendment that overwhelmingly failed.

The anti-60% campaign, Protect AR Constitution, raised $782,000 leading up to the November 2022 election, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Its major donors included the Fairness Project and the National Education Association, the major teacher’s union. The similarly named opposition campaign, Defend AR Constitution, which Ray chaired, raised just $78,000.

Bonnie Miller, president of the Arkansas League of Women Voters, led the campaign to defeat the measure. The group’s ads described the proposal as “ending majority rule in Arkansas” and empowering lobbyists. It was a counter point to the pro-60% ads, which said making it harder to change the constitution would protect the document from “big special interest, out-of-state groups.”

Miller said voters didn’t start off knowing much about the constitutional amendment process, but it wasn’t that hard of a sell.

“A lot of people don’t think about it. But I will say, direct democracy is very important to Arkansans,” Miller said. “We historically have been a very populist state. And people may not understand the politics of how everything works, but they understand direct democracy and they like it. So getting folks to understand the importance was not difficult.”

Miller said lawmakers in Arkansas keep trying to restrict ballot issues because they feel threatened by democracy-reform proposals, like changing the redistricting system or implementing ranked-choice voting.

Ray and other Arkansas lawmakers voted this year to tighten signature-gathering requirements in a similar fashion to the 2020 measure that voters defeated. The Arkansas League of Women Voters has sued.

“We believe politicians who are in power they want to stay in power, and they want to keep it,” Miller said.

Medicaid expansion prompts 60% vote in South Dakota

In South Dakota, legislative leaders acted to try to head off an expected November 2022 ballot measure expanding Medicaid eligibility. They scheduled a June election requiring a 60% supermajority for any measure that would have a fiscal impact of more than $10 million over five years.

It was widely understood to be targeting the Medicaid issue.

“I just thought it should be harder to tax and spend your money,” Rep. Jon Hanson, a Republican who sponsored the measure, said at the time, according to the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader. “Frankly, our state should have done this a long time ago.”

The opposition campaign there was funded by local organized labor groups, but also by hospitals that stood to gain financially from the measure. The state’s three largest health-care systems provided nearly half of the $1.5 million raised by the opposition campaign, South Dakotans for Fair Elections.

The 60% proposal, called Amendment C, failed by a two-to-one margin, while the Medicaid expansion amendment passed the following November with 56% support.

Zachary Nistler, a former Democratic operative who served as a media spokesperson for South Dakotans for Fair Elections, said the opposition campaign succeeded in part because it was able to marshal support from the businesses community, using its representatives as figureheads for the campaign.

“They really took the spear. And then there was a lot of messaging around don’t change a system that wasn’t broke,” Nistler said.

He also said the state’s conservative electorate didn’t hold against them that the ballot initiative processes has been used in South Dakota to advance relatively progressive policies in like Medicaid expansion, in part because there’s a populist streak in South Dakota politics.

“I think voters enjoy having an active role in deciding important policy components for their government,” Nistler said. “It’s a smaller, rural state but in general, I think they view putting the power in the hands of the people as really important. I think the ballot initiative process really affirms that.”

Missouri vote fizzles

Heading into their legislative session this year, Missouri state lawmakers appeared poised to follow Ohio’s lead by asking voters to raise the threshold for approving constitutional amendments. The Missouri proposal would have required a 57% vote.

Voters the past November had voted to legalize recreational marijuana with 53% of the vote. Groups there also are organizing a 2024 ballot measure that would restore abortion rights in Missouri, after a near total-abortion ban went into effect shortly after Roe v. Wade was overturned.

But the 57% measure inexplicably stalled in the state Senate. The legislature ended its 2023 session in May without taking action.

As the measure stalled, Republican House Speaker Dean Plocher predicted that if the threshold was not raised, the 2024 abortion-rights ballot measure would pass, according to the Associated Press.

“The Senate should be held accountable for allowing abortion to return,” Plocher said.

Marilyn McLeod, president of the Missouri League of Women Voters, said in an interview that it was “stunning” when the measure failed. She said the Missouri LWV had been planning an opposition campaign, but now plans to revisit the issue when it comes up again next year.

McLeod said that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Democrats dominated the state legislature, Missouri state lawmakers tried to pass laws restricting the initiative petition process.

Gov. John Ashcroft, a Republican who later became U.S. attorney general, vetoed two bills, one in 1991 and one in 1992.

“He made a statement that initiative petitions are the voice of the people, and we shouldn’t squelch it,” McCloud said. “... All of a sudden, we have a Republican supermajority for the same thing. It was for more power, as we understood it.”

Andrew Tobias covers state politics and government for and The Plain Dealer