Ohio GOP targets abortion, tries to make it harder to change state constitution

For more than a century, Ohio voters could change the state constitution with a simple majority of more than 50 percent of the vote.

That could change in August, when Ohio voters head to the polls in a special election to decide whether future amendments will instead require the approval of 60% of the electorate.

The change, if approved, would almost certainly determine the fate of abortion access in the state.

For months, Republicans in Ohio have been pushing to make it harder for voters to approve constitutional amendments – the next front in the state-led battle over abortion rights after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

The August election comes at a pivotal time — ahead of a separate vote in November on a measure that would enshrine abortion protections in the state constitution.

A CBS News investigation found that the GOP effort in Ohio is one flank of a coordinated, heavily Republican-funded national campaign. megadonor Richard Uihlein, to raise the threshold for the adoption of any constitutional amendment initiated by the citizens.

The move by Republicans in Ohio – who already control both houses of the legislature – sparked controversy across the state. In May, protesters flooded the Columbus State House when the measure organizing the August election was passed.

Former Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican who retired in December, criticized Republican lawmakers for what she called a “strategic” effort to thwart the will of the people.

“It’s misleading, it’s misleading, and if it weren’t so bad, it would be laughable,” O’Connor said in an interview that the process Ohio uses to allow citizens to change its constitution has been in place since 1912. “When you keep changing the rules and moving the goalposts, you are intentionally silencing the vote of the people.”

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who first proposed raising the threshold to 60% last year, said changing the state’s constitution should be rare and require a wider consensus.

“I’ve always been consistent, this is about good government,” he said.

Ohio Abortion Policy

Abortion access remains legal in Ohio until about 22 weeks. In 2019, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine signed a bill banning abortion in the state following the detection of a fetal heartbeat, at about six weeks. The bill went into effect after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, but has been suspended by state court since last September.

Abortion rights groups in Ohio are raising funds nationwide and working to win an amendment in the November ballot that would circumvent this legislation and enshrine protections in the state constitution .

In a poll last year by The Associated Press, 59% of Ohio voters said they thought abortion should generally be legal. Last year, Kansas voters and Michigan chose to preserve abortion access in their state constitution with just under 60 percent approval.

O’Connor said she thought those numbers caught the attention of Republicans in Ohio when they decided to push their measure requiring the amendments to pass with 60% approval.

“That’s why they chose the 60%,” O’Connor said.

In a memo last December to his fellow Republicans, State Rep. Brian Stewart, who first introduced the measure to the Ohio House, made no secret of the role the issue of abortion in the motivation of its efforts.

“After decades of Republican work to make Ohio a pro-life state, the left intends to enshrine abortion on demand in the Ohio Constitution,” Stewart wrote. “If they are successful, all the hard work done by multiple Republican majorities will be undone and we will be back to over 19,000 aborted babies every year.”

LaRose also cited abortion as one of her motivating factors.

“I know for pro-life Ohioans like me, of course, we don’t want to see a really sweeping abortion amendment in our state constitution,” he told CBS News.

Interests outside the state

LaRose denied that the Ohio Republicans were “stacking the deck” in their favor, and said a potential change to the constitutional amendment process was part of “an ongoing public conversation about public policy.”

He cited the need to protect the Ohio constitution from “special interests outside the state.”

A CBS News investigation uncovered out-of-state interests promoting LaRose’s proposal.

In a 2021 memo, a Florida-based nonprofit called the Foundation for Government Accountability touted the “sixty percent supermajority requirement” as a legally valid approach to mitigating attempts to “work around “state legislatures” by bringing issues “directly to the people for a vote.”

A lobbyist for the organization was the only person to testify on behalf of the 60% measure when it was first introduced at the Ohio House. The group’s lobbying arm, the Opportunities Solutions Project, also testified this year in favor of a similar measure in Missouri.

“The playbook running in Ohio has also been running in South Dakota and Arkansas,” said Brendan Fischer, a campaign finance expert at Documented, who describes himself as a watchdog of the political funding.

In a separate pamphlet obtained by CBS News, the Foundation for Government Accountability says it gives state lawmakers “a menu of more than 150 reforms,” ​​including those targeting “the integrity of campaign and election initiatives.”

“We continue to expand our impact and increase the return on investment for our donors,” the organization’s documentation says.

The Foundation for Government Accountability declined to comment, but wrote in the pamphlet, “our political victories create many kinds of opportunities for Americans, but they all work toward one goal: improving lives.”

Fischer traced much of the organization’s support to Illinois billionaire Richard Uihlein, a shipping supplies mogul and major supporter of Republican causes, including millions in donations to anti-abortion groups. Financial disclosures show that a foundation controlled by Uihlein has given nearly $18 million to the Foundation for Government Accountability since 2014.

In April, when the 60% measure appeared to falter at the Ohio House, Uihlein gave $1.1 million to a political committee that had launched a pressure campaign targeting Republican lawmakers on the fence. The donation was first reported by the Columbus Dispatch and confirmed to CBS News by the committee.

Uihlein did not respond to requests for comment, but his campaign was a success. The measure passed the Ohio House on May 10.

Asked about the role of interest groups outside the state, LaRose pointed to “massive amounts of money being spent on both sides,” adding that the donations amount to “free speech” and “are made transparently”.

On August 8, Ohio voters will have the final say on whether to raise the threshold for amending the state constitution to 60%. O’Connor said she hopes Ohioans stick to the majority rules process that has been in place since 1912.

“It worked well, so it’s not broken and there’s no need to fix it,” she said.

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