Ohio secretary of state defends possible August election after pushing to limit them

Secretary of State Frank LaRose speaks during an election night party for Republican candidates at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Columbus in November.
Secretary of State Frank LaRose speaks during an election night party for Republican candidates at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Columbus in November.
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Secretary of State Frank LaRose on Tuesday defended a potential August election for the effort to make it harder to amend the state constitution − just months after advocating to limit those elections.

House and Senate Republicans have introduced resolutions to require 60% of voters to enact constitutional amendments, instead of a simple majority. Three-fifths of both chambers need to approve the question to place it on the ballot, giving voters the final say in whether the rules should change.

Senate GOP leaders want voters to make that decision on Aug. 8 to get ahead of a possible November ballot question on abortion access. But the state Legislature, with LaRose's support, passed a new law last year to eliminate most August elections due to low turnout and cost.

During a news conference Tuesday, LaRose said an August election for a statewide issue wouldn't be unusual. The last time Ohio voters considered a proposed amendment in August was 1926, according to the secretary of state's office.

"Generally, as a normal course of business year in and year out, allowing local municipalities or local school districts or local tax sewer districts to have a sneaky levy when nobody's paying attention is problematic," LaRose said. "A statewide issue is a very different thing. ... There will be very few people in the state not aware that there's a constitutional question on the ballot in August. You'd have to be in a cave to perhaps not realize that issue was there."

LaRose's comments came ahead of two committee hearings on the Senate resolution scheduled for this week. Republicans advocating for the August ballot are on a tight timeline: The measure must clear both the House and Senate by May 10, and lawmakers won't meet during first two weeks of April.

Would August election have high turnout?

Whether they can meet that deadline remains unclear.

House Republicans are still pushing their version of the resolution, which differs slightly from the Senate proposal. Lawmakers met with several stakeholders, including Ohio Right to Life, to discuss the issue last week, Ohio Chamber of Commerce CEO Steve Stivers said Tuesday.

And House Speaker Jason Stephens, R-Kitts Hill, is firmly against an August election.

"Let me be abundantly clear. I am and have always been 100% Pro-Life," Stephens tweeted last week. "I will stand for life at every turn; however, I am not for changing the rules willy nilly at a whim when it comes to changing our constitution."

Under Ohio's new election law, local governments and school districts can hold August elections only if they're under a fiscal emergency. LaRose told lawmakers last year that very few voters participate, citing a Hamilton County special election in 2020 that generated 11.8% turnout.

LaRose said boards of elections could make an August election happen, provided they have funding − at least $10 to $15 million − and sufficient time to prepare. But he said the decision ultimately rests in the hands of the Legislature.

"We believe in convenient elections in Ohio, but the single biggest factor that determines how much turnout we'll see is how excited people are about the candidates or the issues that are on the ballot," LaRose said. "I hope that if there's a question of changing the Ohio Constitution, Ohioans are excited to participate in that election and that we have a higher than normal turnout for an August election, if that's the decision of the General Assembly."

Haley BeMiller is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.

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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose defends possible August election