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Ohio Republicans OK plan to make it harder to pass constitutional amendments

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Republicans in Ohio have approved a plan to try to make it harder to amend the state constitution. This decision prompted protests in the Statehouse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) No on one. No on one. No on one.

INSKEEP: They're chanting no on one, which is the number of the measure. The audio is from WEWS News 5 in Cleveland. The Legislature does not get the final say here. Their vote sends the question to voters in Ohio in August. Karen Kasler of the Ohio Statehouse News Bureau, which is a public media organization in Columbus, joins us. Good morning.

KAREN KASLER: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What exactly is being put to the voters in August?

KASLER: Well, in Ohio, constitutional amendments can be proposed by state lawmakers or by citizens or groups, but they always have to be approved by voters. So this is a resolution from Republican state lawmakers, who are in the supermajority, that would ask voters to increase the threshold to pass an amendment from a simple majority to 60%, but for future constitutional amendments, not for this one. Now, right now two states require a 60% threshold for all amendments - Florida and Illinois.

INSKEEP: OK, so I'm just thinking this through. Lawmakers will put the question to voters in August, which is not a time that's traditionally associated with elections. So maybe they're hoping for low turnout. They put this question to voters, and if a simple majority of the people who happen to show up approve it, it then becomes much harder for voters to approve future changes in the Constitution. Why on Earth would they do this now?

KASLER: Well, Republicans have been saying since last fall that they want to protect Ohio's Constitution from what they call big money out-of-state special interests. But one of the sponsors said in a memo to his fellow Republicans that this is about stopping likely amendments on abortion and gerrymandering. Last year, Ohio's congressional and legislative maps were drawn by lawmakers, and they were ruled unconstitutionally gerrymandered by the Ohio Supreme Court. So Ohio has a six-week abortion ban. That's on hold by the court. And after the Dobbs decision here, abortion rights groups have been in the process of gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures to put a reproductive rights and abortion access amendment before voters on the general election ballot in November.

So Republican lawmakers would like that 60% threshold in place before voters decide on that reproductive rights amendment. But they were unable to pass it for the May primary, so now they're looking at August. And by the way, on that big money special interest note, there's already a lot of money surrounding this resolution and special election in this, and for supporters, nearly all of it is coming from a Republican billionaire from Illinois.

INSKEEP: OK, so a vote on making the Constitution harder to change in August, possible vote in November on putting abortion into the state constitution, and the rules would apply to that. What do opponents say of this Republican measure?

KASLER: Well, there have been two pretty big protests bringing in hundreds of people after weeks of testimony where people came in to testify against this idea. Some of the people are supporters of the resolution and the special election, and those supporters include anti-abortion organizations, evangelical Christian groups, gun rights advocates and Ohio's restaurants, which are worried about an amendment that would increase the minimum wage. But the crowd yesterday was overwhelmingly against this idea. Demonstrators from some of the hundreds of groups that are opposed were there. Most of those groups are aligned with Democrats, but the plan is also opposed by the bipartisan elections officials who would have to conduct the election and also the Libertarian Party, five former state attorneys general from both parties and Ohio's four living ex-governors, two Republicans and two Democrats.

INSKEEP: Is it legal? Could you challenge in court the idea of changing the rules of the game to prevent anything that you don't like?

KASLER: Well, when it comes to Ohio's elections, there's always the possibility of a lawsuit. The question now is whether this resolution is trying to change a law that took effect in April. And that's going to be the question, is whether it's legal or not.

INSKEEP: Karen Kasler of the Ohio Statehouse News Bureau in Columbus, thanks so much.

KASLER: Great to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Kasler