Commentary: How determined is the Ohio GOP to stop abortion? Let me count the ways...
Republicans in the Ohio Statehouse and their allies clearly will stop at nothing to prevent Ohioans from voting in November on a constitutional amendment establishing abortion rights.
They are ganging up because they know full well the amendment has a good chance of being passed by voters.
In October of last year, Baldwin Wallace University released a poll on Ohioans' views on abortion. It found that 59.1% would support an amendment to the Ohio constitution establishing access to abortion as a fundamental right.
What Ohio Republicans are doing now is an attempt of political sabotage that is operating on three fronts:
- A $5 million "dark money" ad campaign by Protect Women Ohio, a coalition of anti-abortion rights groups, that is gearing up eight months before the election, before it is even known if the petition campaign will succeed in getting the abortion issue on the ballot.
- The resurrection of HJR 1 and its Senate companion, SJR 1, which would raise the bar for passage of constitutional amendments from a simple majority to 60% for passage.
- A suit filed on behalf of two anti-abortion rights activists in Montgomery and Hamilton counties, which will be heard this week in the Ohio Supreme Court. It asks the court to order the Ohio Ballot Board to revisit an issue the board settled earlier this month — whether the proposed amendment should be split into multiple ballot issues. If the court does send the ballot language back to the Ohio Ballot Board, it will be setting a new precedent in Ohio law. And one that could make the abortion rights coalition's job gathering signatures with mostly volunteer circulators an extremely difficult task.
The ad campaign
The ad campaign could have an impact, mainly because it focuses on "parental rights," saying the abortion rights amendment would allow teenagers to get abortions or sex change operations without parental consent.
The amendment says nothing of the kind regarding transgender procedures. But people will believe what they want to believe.
The special election
Another real threat to the abortion rights amendment is the "60% standard," although even that may have a hard time getting through the Republican-dominated Ohio General Assembly and onto the ballot in an August special election.
Still, some Republicans in the Ohio Statehouse find themselves so desperate to control every aspect of peoples' lives in this state that they will break their own rules to achieve it.
We're looking at you, Ohio Senate president Matt Huffman.
You played a role in doing away with the August election date that used to be a regular feature of Ohio politics, mainly reserved for local ballot issues. Ohio's 88 county boards of elections were grateful for that, because it eliminated the cost of holding a mid-summer election that drew a tiny sliver of Ohio's registered voters.
Now, though, you are proposing that Ohio hold a "special election" in August because it suits your partisan machinations.
Oh, and it would be a "special election" indeed!
It would be a Hail Mary attempt to convince whatever microscopic portion of Ohio's electorate who would break away from their swimming pools and golf courses to vote in August that they should approve an unnecessary and undemocratic constitutional amendment.
A constitutional amendment in which Ohio voters would, in effect, be saying to Huffman — please, sir, we'd like you to take away part of the power of our votes.
The ballot issue in question would make it a requirement that any constitutional amendment placed on the statewide ballot — including, of course, the abortion rights amendment for which petitioners are now collecting signatures — would have to be approved by 60% of the electorate.
In other words, 41% of Ohio voters could stop a ballot issue that had support of 59% of the people.
But maybe Huffman is not the all-powerful Wizard of Oz he seems to think himself to be.
Getting the idea through the Ohio House, where Lawrence County Republican Jason Stephens was elected speaker in January with the help of the Democratic minority caucus, may stop Huffman dead in his tracks.
Stephens, a self-described "pro-life" politician, has said very publicly that he doesn't like the idea of a special election in August, saying it would be a colossal waste of taxpayers' dollars and an unnecessary burden on Ohio's 88 county boards of elections.
Republican Frank LaRose, Ohio's secretary of state and chief elections officer, used to agree with Stephens on the uselessness of August elections.
But, on Tuesday, he said he had changed his mind.
Did we mention that this "special election" to serve the political purposes of Huffman and his Statehouse crew would cost the taxpayers $20 million?
It's true; even the principal sponsor of HJR 1, State Rep. Brian Stewart of Pickaway County, admitted as much last week in a Statehouse hearing room that was packed to the gills with opponents to his bill.
Not that Huffman and company care one whit about the expense and unnecessary work it causes Ohio's 88 county boards of election.
By the way, this is the same Brian Stewart who said, in a letter to his colleagues in December, that his resolution was meant to stop abortion rights activists and those who want to reform Ohio's redistricting system from getting their way with voters.
But Stephens has the power to stop it — if his coalition of Democrats and Republicans stick together.
Huffman wants to stack the deck, put his thumb on the scales and make the mission of the abortion rights coalition to get a constitutional amendment on the November ballot and get it passed a very daunting task indeed.
The standard for passage of ballot issues in Ohio is "50% plus one." It's been that way since 1912, when William Howard Taft was president.
HJR 1 goes even further. The job of collecting the 413,000 valid signatures needed for an issue to reach the ballot by early July is hard enough as it is, but Huffman and company want to make it even harder.
Present law requires that signatures be gathered in 44 of the state's 88 counties — with at least 5% of those who voted in the most recent gubernatorial election.
HJR 1 extends that rule to all 88 counties.
In other words, a place like Noble County, where 14,176 reside in the Appalachian foothills of southeast Ohio, could stop a petition drive dead in its tracks in a state of 11.8 million people, just because it didn't reach the 5% threshold.
Some might say this is the tail wagging the dog. But the tail wagging the dog is what this Republican super-majority in the Ohio legislature is all about.
Voter rights groups would like to nip this in the bud in the committee hearings, but the GOP leadership has stacked that deck, too.
Hearings with public input will be limited and only those invited will be allowed to speak to the House Committee.
"They want absolute control over everything,'' said Jen Miller, executive director of the Ohio League of Women Voters.
"We know that HJR 1 is unpopular and undemocratic," Miller said. "Nobody wants this. Nobody needs this. We are very disappointed that they would try this again."
It's the second time around for HJR 1. It was introduced in last fall's lame duck session and wasn't passed — mainly because some Republican state representatives balked at the 60% rule.
That could very well happen again with this new iteration of the 60% idea.
After all, their friends in Ohio's business community, who seem to have a bottomless pool of campaign money to feed the GOP, may have their own constitutional amendments at some point. They don't want to waste time and money drumming up 60% support from voters.
Over 120 organizations from across the political spectrum came out against HJR 1 last fall and they are even more determined to quash it now.
If Huffman and company were trying to pull this off in a high turnout general election, it would have no chance of passing. None.
That's why they are reviving the August "special election" notion in hopes of slipping this one by in the middle of summer when they figure nobody is looking.
The president of the Ohio Senate may find out that, when it comes to disenfranchising voters, more people are paying attention than he thinks.