Adding excitement, and unpredictability, to this year’s elections could be a flurry of constitutional amendments, each with the potential to divide or distract an already polarized electorate.
Ohio has been flirting with California-style politics in recent years. At one point in early 2012, it appeared that as many as nine statewide issues could make the general election ballot, a number last reached in 1975.
But voters ended up facing just two, rejecting a call for a constitutional convention and defeating an amendment to create a citizens commission to draw legislative and congressional districts.
This year could be busier, with candidates and parties forced to maneuver in a more complex landscape, in which hot-button issues motivate specific blocs of voters.
That is not exactly what the progressives who gathered at Ohio’s 1912 Constitutional Convention envisioned as the result of giving citizens the right to initiate statutes and amendments and take them directly to the ballot, a process meant to act as the ultimate safeguard, along with the referendum, of the rights of the people.
But modern campaign methods make it far easier to gather signatures and mount a statewide campaign than decades ago, increasing the temptation to bypass the legislative process.
That’s why Ohio voters could face in November proposed amendments that would legalize gay marriage (and overturn a ban approved by voters in 2004), provide for the medical, therapeutic and industrial use of marijuana and establish a Voters Bill of Rights.
These issues could drive Democrats to the polls, increasing turnout in a nonpresidential election year, when interest usually wanes. Just as George W. Bush’s re-election campaign benefited in 2004 when proponents of the anti-gay-marriage amendment flocked to the polls, Ohio’s Democrats could be helped this year by a boost in their liberal base.
Still, there are risks. There could be a conservative backlash. And, despite changing attitudes on marijuana and gay marriage, defeat could doom future tries.
The Voters Bill of Rights is the most recent idea, launched last week by African-American politicians, clergy members and activists. It would counter Republican efforts to roll back opportunities to vote early and allow provisional ballots to be counted if cast in the correct county. It would also move toward online voter registration. Meeting a July deadline for submitting signatures poses a challenge.
For conservatives, the attractions could be a “right-to-work” amendment, which would prohibit union membership as a condition of employment and prevent payment of fees that support collective bargaining by employees who opt out of unions, and a “personhood” amendment that would expand the definition of a human being to include every stage of biological development, preventing abortions.
Neither have been priorities for Republican majorities in the Ohio House and Senate, although right-to-work opponents remain wary.
Less clear is a proposed amendment that would see the state issue $13 billion in bonds over 10 years to fund renewable energy projects.
Sounds good, but control of the public’s money would be even more mysterious than under JobsOhio, Gov. John Kasich’s privatized job-development agency. A Delaware-based corporation would control the $13 billion, an arrangement that has drawn fire from environmentalists and Jon Husted, Ohio’s Republican secretary of state.
The legislature has until August to put constitutional amendments on the ballot. There are signs that a special commission studying changes to the Ohio Constitution will recommend an amendment that would fix the way legislative and congressional districts are redrawn after each census.
Unlike the other amendments, this one would encourage bipartisanship. It would create a bipartisan board that would have to approve new districts with a supermajority vote that includes one minority party member. In the end, that would encourage the election of moderates, helping Ohio voters come together rather than splitting them apart.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.