The campaign over Issue 1 in Ohio has been provocative, to say the least. One ad argues that the ballot measure is necessary to prevent children from getting gender-affirming care without their parents’ consent. Another features a steamy sex scene — interrupted by a Republican congressman who steals a condom out of a couple’s hands.
Based on this, you might be confused about what Issue 1 is about — but it would seem safe to assume that it must be pretty spicy. Not so: It’s actually a procedural question about whether amendments to the Ohio Constitution should require a 60 percent supermajority of the vote to pass. (It would also require petitioners to get signatures from all 88 Ohio counties in order to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot and eliminate their ability to get new signatures to replace any that are found invalid.) But as you can tell from those ads, Issue 1 has become a proxy fight over a more contentious topic: a different constitutional amendment, to guarantee reproductive rights, that Ohioans will vote on in November. Ohio Republicans have said that the goal of Issue 1, which will go before voters on Tuesday, is to make that amendment harder to pass — and if they’re successful, abortion-rights supporters will be facing a much tougher challenge this fall.
Issue 1 is just the latest in a string of efforts by GOP politicians to change the rules governing ballot measures with the implicit, or sometimes explicit, aim of thwarting citizen-led policy proposals. Since 2017, at least 10 states — Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Maine, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Utah — have considered increasing the threshold for at least some ballot initiatives to pass. All these efforts were led by Republican legislators either in reaction to or in anticipation of liberal ballot questions — like a 2022 effort to expand Medicaid in South Dakota and, more recently, a potential 2024 abortion-rights amendment in Missouri.
The good news for opponents of Issue 1? These types of rule changes aren’t usually successful with voters — and right now, polling suggests that this latest effort may fail too.
Since 2017, the only similar effort to succeed was Proposition 132 in Arizona last year, which raised the threshold to pass certain ballot measures to 60 percent. But unlike Ohio’s Issue 1, that proposition applied only to ballot measures that raised taxes, and it passed very narrowly to boot — just 51 percent to 49 percent.
Of course, Issue 1 wouldn’t just make it harder for citizen-initiated constitutional amendments to pass. It’s also part of a widespread pattern of Republicans making it harder to get initiatives on the ballot in the first place. Since 2017, at least 16 states — Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming — have proposed increasing the number of signatures needed to qualify a ballot initiative or, like Issue 1, adding new requirements that those signatures come from specific jurisdictions, like counties or congressional districts.
These efforts have been slightly more successful than those attempting to raise the voting threshold. Arkansas, Idaho, Michigan and Utah have all enacted new signature-distribution requirements in recent years, although Idaho’s and Michigan’s were later struck down in court. But it’s worth noting that none of those laws needed to go before voters (and, in fact, when Arkansas tried that in 2020, voters rejected the proposal).
These geographic requirements can be particularly challenging for liberal petitioners. For example, Missouri has for decades required ballot-initiative campaigns to collect a certain number of signatures from six of the state’s eight congressional districts. For conservatives, that’s a piece of cake: Six of the state’s eight districts are solidly Republican, so they can just skip the two Democratic districts. But liberals need to collect signatures from at least four ruby-red seats, including one that voted for former President Donald Trump by 39 percentage points in 2020. By contrast, without a geographic requirement, liberal petitioners could simply collect all their signatures from the fertile blue turf of St. Louis and Kansas City.
So what are Issue 1’s prospects in Ohio on Tuesday? We don’t have a lot of data, but there are signs that it, too, could be headed for defeat. If you average the three polls of the race that have been released, 35 percent of Ohioans support the 60 percent threshold, 45 percent oppose it and 20 percent aren’t sure. That’s a lot of undecideds, but there’s also a well-documented status-quo bias against ballot measures — meaning undecided voters tend to break for “no.” Plus, Issue 1’s opponents are much flusher with cash than its supporters; as of July 19, “no” had outraised “yes” $15 million to $5 million.
If Issue 1 does pass, though, it could prevent many future proposed constitutional amendments from becoming law. Only one other state, Florida, requires exactly 60 percent or more support to pass its constitutional amendments. Since voters passed an Issue 1-esque amendment to that effect in 2006, nine amendments (out of 53 that have appeared on the ballot) have failed with between 50 and 60 percent of the vote, including one to increase school class sizes, one to switch to a top-two primary system and one to legalize medical marijuana. For comparison, 13 failed with less than 50 percent of the vote. In other words, 41 percent of the Florida constitutional amendments that have failed since 2006 would have passed under a simple majority system. And in Ohio, it seems quite possible that November’s abortion-rights amendment will fall in that 50-60 percent zone. According to those same three polls, Ohioans support the abortion amendment by an average of 57 percent to 24 percent (with 20 percent undecided).
Which is to say: If Issue 1 passes, November’s ballot initiative could become its first casualty. If not, it will probably go into the fall campaign favored to win. It’s no exaggeration to say that, even though it’s not technically on the ballot, the fate of abortion rights in Ohio could effectively be decided on Tuesday.