Ohio Chamber of Commerce President Steve Stivers. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images, 2017.)
They include abortion foes, gun-rights groups, an election denier, and the gerrymandered legislature
The Ohio Chamber of Commerce is supporting a proposed amendment to the state Constitution that has huge implications for such issues as abortion, gun control, and even democracy itself.
But Steve Stivers, president and CEO of the chamber, isn’t willing to talk about those things as his organization joins the effort to make it much harder for voters to amend the Ohio Constitution.
The Chamber last month came out in support of a proposal by Ohio’s Republican-controlled legislature that would make it far harder for voters to gather enough signatures to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot. It would also require a majority of at least 60% to pass it instead of the current 50%. In doing so, the Chamber is joining forces with Ohio Right to Life, the Buckeye Firearms Association, and an out-of-state, election-denying billionaire.
The measure, Issue 1, will be on the ballot Aug. 8 because Republicans in the legislature last month reversed a ban on such elections that they passed just last year because voter turnout in the dog days of summer is typically abysmal. In August 2022 it was 7.9%.
On May 11, Stivers issued a statement saying the Chamber takes no position on abortion rights — even though the measure it’s supporting is intended to block a voter-initiated abortion-rights amendment that is expected to appear on the November ballot. Stivers also said the group isn’t taking a position on other “social” issues that are popular with voters, but the Republican supermajority in the state legislature — declared an unconstitutional gerrymander multiple times by a bipartisan Ohio Supreme Court — seems determined to stymie.
“The Ohio Chamber Board voted today to take no position on the November election’s reproductive rights issue,” Stivers said. “The Ohio Chamber is a business association and takes positions on business issues, not social issues. While we support protecting our constitution in August, this has everything to do with subjects like minimum wage, employment at-will, and other business issues.”
That ignores businesses’ interest in avoiding unpopular legislation such as Ohio’s harsh abortion restrictions passed out of an extremely gerrymandered legislature. A survey conducted last August indicated that a third of job seekers wouldn’t even consider working in states with strict abortion limitations and that 27% percent of workers in states with the most restrictive abortion laws wanted to leave.
But Stivers, a former Republican congressman, has declined to discuss such things. Since issuing the May 11 statement, the Chamber hasn’t responded to requests for an interview with Stivers, and it ignored written questions that were sent as a follow-up.
Lack of transparency
The refusal of the state’s most prominent business organization to discuss the ramifications of a constitutional change it’s supporting adds another undemocratic layer to an initiative that already has many, said Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, which opposes State Issue 1. She said the Chamber and its members will sink lots of corporate money into the fight to cut voters’ power, but it doesn’t want to be open with them.
“One of the challenges with corporate donations and business organizations is that the money does the talking,” Turcer said. “It gets spent on elections, but we don’t hear directly from the people behind it. And we should expect to hear that because at the end of the day, a corporation doesn’t get to vote. At the end of the day, a corporation is an artificial entity. (Behind them are) human beings making decisions and we should understand what is happening. Or at least the press should have an opportunity to ask questions.”
The position the Chamber is taking in favor of State Issue 1 is out of step with four former governors of both parties, five former Ohio attorneys general, and more than 240 organizations — such as Turcer’s — who are adamantly opposed to the measure because they believe it would effectively lock Ohio voters out of their state Constitution.
The provision Issue 1 seeks to change was championed by former President Theodore Roosevelt as a way to force an unresponsive government to address the public’s concerns.
Adopted in 1912, it sets a high bar for voters to gain access to the Ohio Constitution. It requires supporters of an amendment to gather a large number of voter signatures (413,000 for the abortion-rights amendment planned for the November ballot) and it requires that a given number of them be gathered in each of 44 counties in the various regions of the state. After all that, it also has to gain a majority of the vote to become part of the Constitution.
Under Issue 1, Republicans in the legislature, anti-abortion groups, pro-gun groups — and the Chamber — want to require 60% of the vote for an amendment to pass, even as they try to pass the restriction under the current, 50% requirement. In other words, they’re trying to get a simple majority in a low-turnout Aug. 8 election to pass an amendment saying that a 40% minority can quash future amendments supported by 59.9% of Ohio voters.
Issue 1 “is a proposal to substantially diminish the most significant power held by the people, the power of initiative petition to amend the Ohio Constitution. Our Constitution leaves no doubt about this,” Ohio Supreme Court Justice Jennifer Brunner, wrote in a partial dissent published on Monday. She was dissenting because she thought the court didn’t go far enough in ruling that parts of Issue 1 are “likely to mislead voters.”
Like Brunner, Turcer argues that the effort to enhance the power of the gerrymandered legislature relative to the voters is undemocratic. And — along with former Republican Gov. Bob Taft — she argues that even from the standpoint of its supporters, the measure is shortsighted.
“It’s problematic that organizations decided to make it harder for citizens to change the Constitution because they don’t like specific policies. But it’s not always going to be 2023,” Turcer said. “There are a number of different ways we can improve the state and leaving that to a minority of Ohio voters is really scary. It’s really scary to think that a majority of voters — whether it’s 55% or 58% — approve of something, but they can’t actually put that policy in place.”
Adding to accusations that the proposed change is anti-democratic are the misleading reasons proponents have given for needing it.
Stivers, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, and other proponents argue that voter access needs to be ratcheted down to “protect” the Ohio Constitution from monied out-of-state interests. But when he announced an earlier version of the measure last year, LaRose couldn’t point to any examples of such interests amending the Constitution in the past.
Nor will LaRose or Stivers comment on an out-of-state special interest who has donated more than $1 million in support of their effort to lock Ohio voters out of the state Constitution. That’s Illinois billionaire Richard Uihlein, who helped fund the rally that preceded the violent Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol, and who has since spent millions funding candidates who falsely claim Donald Trump won the 2020 election.
At the same press conference last year in which LaRose claimed he was trying to protect the Constitution, he also claimed that he was thinking long-term. He said he wasn’t trying to block the expected amendment protecting abortion rights.
LaRose also denied that he wanted to foil another attempt by Ohio voters to stop extreme gerrymandering after he and other Republicans on the state Redistricting Commission ignored repeated orders by the state Supreme Court to follow earlier amendments passed with 70% of the vote. The Republican commissioners last year ran out the clock on the process and lawmakers in the consequently unconstitutional districts voted to put the amendment that would make it much harder for Ohio voters to amend the Constitution on the Aug. 8 ballot.
In her dissenting opinion Monday, Justice Brunner said that by ignoring constitutional prohibitions against gerrymandering, Republican leaders make it easy to come up with the needed votes for the legislature to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot while making it almost impossible for voters to do the same.
“If the General Assembly continues to ignore (anti-gerrymandering) orders of this court regarding the state legislative redistricting process, gaining a three-fifths vote should not be difficult for it to accomplish,” she wrote.
Lack of candor
Turcer of Common Cause said that business groups such as the Chamber ignore issues like gerrymandering at their peril. That’s because lawmakers from gerrymandered districts have every incentive to cater to the most charged-up elements of their base and ignore everybody else. It‘s an engine that produces extreme legislation that can prompt boycotts, protests and require businesses to provide special benefits to protect employees.
“The folks who do support Issue 1 and the special election clearly don’t care about gerrymandering — the manipulation of district lines to manipulate elections and policy,” Turcer said. “Gerrymandering has a profound consequence for our business leaders and the business community. It is extremely short-sighted to not think about how challenging it will be to do a citizen initiative with the news rules that are in place.”
LaRose again demonstrated in May that he was being less than forthright when he claimed his support for the effort was only out of concern for the future integrity of the Ohio Constitution, and not current fights over abortion and gerrymandering.
“That’s not what this kind of a change should ever be about,” LaRose said last November.
But last month, the state’s top elections official told Seneca County Republicans “It’s 100% about keeping a radical pro-abortion amendment out of our constitution,” WEWS reported.
The lack of candor about their reasons for wanting to effectively lock Ohio voters out of the state Constitution seems to extend even to the name of the campaign committee supporting the measure: Save Our Constitution.
“A more accurate name might be Save Our Constitution from Ideas We Don’t Like,” veteran Ohio political reporter Howard Wilkinson opined earlier this month.
It’s possible that Stivers, the Chamber, and other business interests are narrowly focused on stopping a minimum wage hike to $15 an hour — which enjoys the support from 60% of the public.
The Chamber might also be responding to pressure from legislative Republicans. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that GOP leaders last month put the arm on corporate lobbyists to contribute to the Issue 1 push as they draw up a multi-billion dollar state budget that is of great interest to the companies the lobbyists represent.
Either way, Turcer said, the Chamber and its members are trying to water down democracy for their own, narrow purposes.
“For political expediency, they would like to make it harder for us to participate in direct democracy,” she said. “They would prefer to dilute the power of voters rather than promote their own policy agenda with voters.”