Watch CBS News

Targeting abortion access, Ohio Republicans are trying to make it harder to amend the state's constitution

Ohio GOP takes aim at abortion amendment
Ohio GOP try to make it harder to amend the state's constitution to target abortion access 06:30

For more than a century, Ohio voters could amend the state constitution with a simple majority of more than 50% of the vote. 

That could change in August, when Ohio voters head to the polls in a special election to decide whether future amendments will instead need the approval of 60% of the electorate.

The change, known as Issue 1, would almost certainly determine the fate of abortion access in the state if approved. 

For months, Ohio Republicans have been pushing to make it more difficult for voters to approve constitutional amendments — the next front in the state-led battle over abortion rights after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. 

The August election comes at a pivotal moment — ahead of a separate November vote on a measure that would write abortion protections into the state's constitution.

A CBS News investigation found the GOP effort in Ohio is one flank in a coordinated nationwide campaign, heavily funded by Republican megadonor Richard Uihlein, to raise the threshold to pass any citizen-initiated constitutional amendment.

The move by Ohio Republicans — who already control both chambers of the legislature — has sparked controversy throughout the state. In May, protesters flooded the statehouse in Columbus when the measure setting up the August election passed.

Former Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor, a Republican who retired in December, criticized Republican lawmakers for what she said is a "strategic" effort to thwart the will of the people. 

"It's misleading, it's deceptive, and if it weren't so serious, it would be laughable," O'Connor said in an interview that the process Ohio uses to allow citizens to amend its constitution has been in place since 1912. "When you keep changing the rules and moving the goalposts, you are intentionally silencing the vote of the people."

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who first proposed raising the threshold to 60% last year, said changing the state constitution should be rare and require a broader consensus.

"I've been consistent all along, this is about good government," he said. 

Ohio's abortion politics

Access to abortion remains legal in Ohio up to about 22 weeks. In 2019, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed a bill banning abortions in the state after a fetal heartbeat is detected, at approximately six weeks. The bill took effect after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, but has been put on hold by a state court since last September.

Abortion rights groups in Ohio are raising funds nationally and working to get an amendment on the November ballot that would circumvent this legislation and enshrine protections in the state's constitution. 

In a poll last year conducted by the Associated Press, 59% of Ohio voters said they believed abortion should generally be legal. Last year, voters in Kansas and Michigan chose to preserve abortion access in their state constitution with just under 60% approval.

O'Connor said she believes those numbers caught the eye of Republicans in Ohio when they decided to push their measure requiring amendments to pass with 60% approval. 

"That's why they chose the 60%," O'Connor said.

In a memo last December to his Republican colleagues, state Rep. Brian Stewart, who first introduced the measure in the Ohio House, did not hide the role the abortion issue was playing in motivating his efforts.

"After decades of Republicans' work to make Ohio a pro-life state, the Left intends to write abortion on demand into Ohio's Constitution," Stewart wrote. "If they succeed, all the work accomplished by multiple Republican majorities will be undone, and we will return to 19,000+ babies being aborted each and every year."

LaRose has also cited abortion as one of his motivating factors.

"I know that for fellow pro-life Ohioans like myself, of course, we don't want to see a really radical abortion amendment put in our state constitution," he told CBS News. 

Out-of-state interests

LaRose denied Ohio Republicans were "stacking the deck" in their favor, and said a potential change to the constitutional amendment process was part of "an ongoing public conversation about public policy."

He cited the need to protect Ohio's constitution from "out-of-state special interests."

A CBS News investigation discovered out-of-state interests promoting LaRose's proposal. 

In a 2021 memo, a Florida-based nonprofit called the Foundation for Government Accountability, touted the "sixty percent supermajority requirement" as a legally sound approach to mitigate attempts to "bypass ... state legislatures" by bringing issues "directly to the people for a vote."

A lobbyist for the organization was the only person to testify on behalf of the 60% measure when it was first introduced in the Ohio House. The group's lobbying arm, the Opportunities Solutions Project, also testified this year in support of a similar measure in Missouri. 

"The playbook being executed in Ohio, was also executed in South Dakota and Arkansas," said Brendan Fischer, a campaign finance expert with Documented, which describes itself as a political finance watchdog.

In a separate pamphlet obtained by CBS News, the Foundation for Government Accountability says it gives state lawmakers "a menu featuring more than 150 reforms," including those targeting "election and ballot initiative integrity." 

"We continue to expand our impact and increase the return on our donors' investment," the organization's literature states.

The Foundation for Government Accountability declined to comment, but wrote in the pamphlet, "our policy victories are creating many different types of opportunities for Americans, but they all work toward one goal: improving lives." 

Fischer traced much of the organization's support to Illinois billionaire Richard Uihlein, a shipping supplies magnate and major supporter of Republican causes, including millions in donations to anti-abortion groups. Financial disclosures show a foundation controlled by Uihlein has given nearly $18 million to the Foundation for Government Accountability since 2014.

In April, when the 60% measure appeared to falter in the Ohio House, Uihlein gave $1.1 million to a political committee that had launched a pressure campaign targeting Republican lawmakers on the fence. The donation was first reported by the Columbus Dispatch, and confirmed to CBS News by the committee. 

Uihlein did not respond to requests for comment, but his campaign was successful. The measure passed the Ohio House on May 10. 

When asked about the role of out-of-state interest groups, LaRose pointed to "massive amounts of money being spent on both sides," adding the donations amount to "free speech" and "are done transparently." 

On Aug. 8, Ohio voters will get the final say on whether to raise the threshold to amend the state's constitution to 60%. O'Connor said she hopes Ohioans stick with the majority rules process that's been in place since 1912. 

"It's worked well, so it's not broken and there's no need to fix it," she said. 

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.