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Analysis: Why is Frank LaRose pushing a ballot issue not many seem to like?

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose speaks to the Fairfield County Lincoln Republican Club in Pickerington, Ohio, Thursday, March 24, 2022.
Paul Vernon
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose speaks to the Fairfield County Lincoln Republican Club in Pickerington, Ohio, Thursday, March 24, 2022.

You really must wonder what Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose is thinking.

He's allowed himself to be the front man for a Republican super-majority that wants to move the goalposts for any citizen-led petition initiative to change Ohio's constitution by a vote of the people.

And it's not hard to figure out who the Statehouse Republicans are aiming to slow down — abortion rights advocates who want to codify Roe v. Wade into the Ohio Constitution; voting rights groups who want elected politicians out of the process of drawing legislative district lines; and any other advocates for issues that threaten their complete control of Ohio government.

House Joint Resolution 6 is sponsored by State Rep. Brian Stewart of Pickaway County and is being hawked by LaRose like Mike Huckabee doing infomercials for sleeping pills. It is on a fast-track through the lame-duck session of the 134th Ohio General Assembly, with the goal of placing a constitutional amendment on the May 23 primary ballot.

That constitutional amendment would require that any citizen-initiated amendment not only go through the already expensive and time-consuming process of gathering signatures but would also require that the amendment get 60% of the vote in order to pass.

Yes, you read that right. 60% to pass.

Not a majority of at least 50% plus one, as it has been in Ohio for such ballot issues since William Howard Taft was president. Sixty percent.

The bill as originally submitted would have had different rules for constitutional amendments placed on the ballot by Ohio legislators, requiring them to only need a simple majority to pass.

But that was amended last week to require a 60% vote on legislature-initiated constitutional amendments as well. LaRose was in favor of the change.

The Republicans in the legislature have enough votes to put this on the ballot in May without the support of a single Democrat. But do they seriously think they can get this passed — even in a low-turnout election like the May primary?

After all, as of Monday, 140 organizations from across the political spectrum in Ohio had joined a coalition in opposition to HJR 6, and more are expected to get on board.

Each and every one of these organizations will be telling their members and supporters to come out to vote in May to vote this down.

It's already happened twice this year. Arkansas and South Dakota — hardly liberal strongholds — had similar issues on the 2022 ballot. In Arkansas, it was voted down 59% to 41%. In South Dakota, the vote was 67% against the measure.

"It is crazy to think that the citizens of Ohio are going to be willing to give up their power to change the state constitution," said Rev. Dr. Amariah McIntosh, pastor of Phillips Temple CME Church in Toledo and associate director of the Ohio Council of Churches, one of the 140 groups lined up in opposition to HJR 6.

"Fifty-nine percent is not enough to pass a constitutional amendment?" McIntosh said. "How gullible do they think Ohio voters are?"

So why is Frank LaRose, the state's chief elections officer, out there pushing this idea?

LaRose could not be reached for comment on HJR 6.

But everyone in Ohio politics knows that LaRose wants to be the GOP nominee in 2024 to take on Sherrod Brown, the incumbent Democratic U.S. senator. This just seems like an odd way to start a Senate campaign.

"I am not surprised that the Republicans in the legislature are doing this, but I am shocked that Frank LaRose is the one out front on this," said David B. Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron. "He's one of the few Republicans in Ohio who has crossover appeal; he can pick up Democratic and independent votes. Why he would give them a reason to not support him is beyond me."

Cohen's theory is this: LaRose is doing this to appeal to the Republican base in Ohio — most of whom have supported Donald Trump, who clearly has no great love for democratic institutions.

"He is probably just trying to clear the field for the 2024 Republican Senate primary," Cohen said. "He's staking out his ground."

It's true that LaRose will likely have to get past a field of GOP senate candidates in order to face Brown in November 2024.

State Sen. Matt Dolan, who ran for the GOP senate nomination earlier this year, is said to be considering another run. So, too, is U.S. Rep. Warren Davidson of Troy, whose district now includes western Hamilton County. And there will be others.

It's hard to imagine that all his potential rivals will be scared away by this move.

One of the reasons the Republican legislators LaRose is shilling for like the idea of having this on the May 2023 ballot is that it will force the progressive groups who oppose it to spend money fighting it.

And that means, the GOP legislators believe, that those groups will have less money to spend mounting expensive petition drives to get constitutional amendments for all the aforementioned ideas the GOP opposes.

"It's just another example of their insatiable lust for power," Cohen said. "They want complete and total rule of every aspect of state government. And they will stop at nothing to stomp out the opposition."

McIntosh agreed.

"We have to fight this — not just the churches, but all the groups in opposition," McIntosh said. "LaRose and the Republicans know this is a dirty trick. We can't let them stack the deck against the voice of the people."

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.