COLUMBUS, Ohio — AUGUST 24: Ohio Ballot Board Chair, Secretary of State Frank LaRose at the Ballot Board meeting to certify the language for Issue 1, the proposed constitutional amendment entitled “The Right to Reproductive Freedom with Protections for Health and Safety” and Issue 2 entitled “An Act to Control and Regulate Adult Use Cannabis,” August 24, 2023, at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal)


by Marilou Johanek

Play fair or play dirty. Issue 1 showed Ohio voters how state Republicans play when they can’t persuade. Extremists know most Ohioans support the right to abortion within limits. The outright ban on abortion gerrymandered pols seek is wildly unpopular. Convincing rational minds otherwise is pointless. So Ohio’s GOP overlords cheat to win.

Lawmakers rushed a game-changing ballot amendment to an August election (in violation of state law) to sabotage the abortion rights amendment in November. Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose spearheaded the shady maneuver to cancel self-governance by majority vote — just to keep a majority of Ohio voters from having their say on abortion access as a constitutional right.

The state’s elections chief actively campaigned to end the only enduring recourse of ordinary citizens to circumvent a crooked government because he didn’t want an abortion rights amendment to pass. Sit with that for a minute. The guy who administers the electoral system in Ohio tried to undercut the electorate.

That’s how amoral LaRose has become as he angles for attention as the greatest MAGA candidate in the U.S. Senate race. Burnishing his anti-abortion bona fides with the pro-Issue 1 crowd, in partnership with a leading anti-abortion lobbyist, was more important than upholding majoritarian democracy. Stumping for minority rule on the hollow pretense of “protecting” the constitution was a new low for LaRose.

But the integrity-is-overrated elections boss and Republican kingpins in the Statehouse badly mistook the masses for rubes. All the misleading, fear-mongering, coming-after-your-children TV ads (out-of-state money could buy) didn’t fool an overriding majority of ticked-off Ohio voters who showed up in record numbers to beat back an egregious political power grab on Aug. 8.

The beaten cheerleader for Issue 1 refused to concede the people had spoken (a Trumpian reflex?) and last week rolled out another snow job to derail the abortion rights amendment through ballot language subterfuge. LaRose chairs the Republican-dominated Ohio Ballot Board that voted along party lines Thursday to approve the summary language voters will read on their November ballot about the proposed abortion amendment.

Under state law, LaRose could have used the full text of the amendment as written, and attorneys for Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights urged him to so “there can be no dispute about whether legal standards have been satisfied, or whether the condensed text misleads, deceives, or defrauds voters.” Instead, LaRose recast the amendment to purposely mislead and deceive.

His draft is slanted with such routinely deployed anti-abortion propaganda it could have been dictated, word for word, by Ohio Right to Life President Mike Gonidakis. LaRose’s specious interpretation of the proposed amendment to enshrine reproductive freedom in the state constitution is deliberately deceptive with provocative wording to unfairly prejudice outcome.

The revisions he engineered on an amendment he campaigned against are so beyond the pale of “fair and accurate,” as the secretary ludicrously declared, that stunned amendment backers filed suit Monday with the state supreme court for fairness and accuracy. LaRose omitted actual provisions of the original amendment.

He deleted a description of reproductive choices an individual should have the “right to make and carry out” such as “decisions on contraception, fertility treatment, continuing one’s own pregnancy, miscarriage care, and abortion.” LaRose’s altered the language stipulating an individual right to “one’s own reproductive decisions” to just “a right to one’s own reproductive medical treatment, including but not limited to abortion.”

Perhaps most blatant was the secretary of state’s pointed replacement of the medical term “fetus” throughout the amendment with “unborn child,” employing the same weighted rhetoric seeded over decades by the anti-abortion movement. He also curiously substituted “the citizens of the State of Ohio” for amendment prohibitions specifically targeting “The State,” defined in the language “as any governmental entity and political subdivision.”

So what was originally worded “The State shall not, directly or indirectly, burden, penalize, prohibit, interfere with, or otherwise discriminate against” Ohioans exercising their reproductive rights became “the citizens of the State of Ohio” prohibited for doing the same. Different meaning. Why?

Original language allows that “abortion may be prohibited after fetal viability” or when the fetus can survive outside the womb — a standard restriction for decades under Roe. With a six-week ban on hold by the courts, abortion is currently legal in Ohio up to 22 weeks of pregnancy, a measured limitation widely acceptable.

LaRose flipped that reasonable allowance upside-down with inflammatory assertions that the amendment would “always allow an unborn child to be aborted at any stage of pregnancy, regardless of viability, if, in the treating physician’s determination” the applicable life and health exceptions are met. The glaring prejudicial language and selective editing of the fall abortion amendment to intentionally distort an initiative petition so it fails should infuriate every Ohioan — regardless of their beliefs about abortion.

Frank LaRose, the public servant responsible for conducting free and fair elections in Ohio is playing dirty to win. It’s wrong. But it’s only the beginning. Issue 1 was a preview of the depths Ohio Republicans will go to when they can’t persuade. They cheat.

The devious battle to deny abortion access in Ohio, despite the wishes of a majority of voters, will be epic.

Marilou Johanek

Marilou Johanek is a veteran Ohio print and broadcast journalist who has covered state and national politics as a longtime newspaper editorial writer and columnist.


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