COLUMBUS, OH — FEBRUARY 08: Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, speaks with reporters after the Ohio Senate session, February 8, 2023, in the Senate Chamber at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal)

“If we save 30,000 lives as a result of spending $20 million,” Senate President Matt Huffman argued, “I think that’s a great thing.”

BY: NICK EVANS – Ohio Capital Journal

Only about three months ago, Ohio lawmakers passed a wide-ranging elections bill that will require voters present a photo ID when they cast a ballot. But it didn’t start out that way. Lawmakers bolted on the photo ID requirements only at the last minute.

The bill began as a proposal to eliminate August special elections. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Thomas Hall, R-Madison Township, argued there should only be two elections a year “a primary election, and a general election.”

“August special elections are costly to taxpayers and fail to engage a meaningful amount of the electorate in the process,” he argued.

So why are lawmakers now preparing to un-eliminate the elections they just scrapped?

The Senate’s proposal

Sens. Rob McColley, R-Napoleon, and Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, introduced a bill Wednesday that would, once again, allow August special elections.

 COLUMBUS, Ohio — MARCH 22: State Rep. Allison Russo, D-Upper Arlington, speaks to reporters after the House Constitutional Resolutions committee meeting first hearing on HJR 1 that would require 60% vote to approve any constitutional amendment, March 22, 2023, at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.)

Despite the most recent August election barely clearing 8% in statewide voter turnout, the sponsors specifically add legislature-initiated amendments to the brief list of proposals that can go on an August ballot. Citizen-led amendments can still only go before voters in November

McColley and Gavarone’s change of heart has to do with one such proposal working its way through the Ohio House. That resolution would put a proposal on the ballot raising the threshold for passage of all future amendments from a simple majority to 60%.

After that resolution’s hearing, House minority leader Allison Russo criticized the unnecessary expense.  Of Republicans’ about face, she said, “the hypocrisy here has no bounds.”

“Really what this is about is silencing the voice of voters and shutting down direct democracy,” she argued, “Because again, this is a legislature who has no interest in being checked by voters — they picked their voters.”

The sponsors readily acknowledge the expense of their gambit. The bill appropriates $20 million to help county boards conduct a special election. If lawmakers were to wait about three months, they could save that money. As it happens, there’s an election every November, and it’s relatively cheap to add one more question.

But Senate president Matt Huffman is calculating the question differently, and to him, the math adds up.

Huffman’s take

“If we save 30,000 lives as a result of spending $20 million, I think that’s a great thing,” Huffman told reporters after a Senate session Thursday. “Now I know a lot of people don’t look at it that way, but that’s the way I look at it.”

His comments are an explicit connection between efforts to raise the threshold for amending the constitution and undermining an abortion rights amendment. Organizers are currently gathering signatures for that proposal and hope to have it on the ballot this November.

The senate president over-shot the mark, however. Department of Health statistics put the number of induced abortions at more like 21,000-22,000 per year on average.

Huffman defended the push for an August election. He said he’d expected the House to have the supermajority resolution passed in time for the May primaries.

 COLUMBUS, OH — JANUARY 03: Newly elected Ohio House Speaker Rep. Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill) gives brief remarks at the opening day ceremonies of the 135th General Assembly of the State of Ohio, January 3, 2023, in the House Chamber at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.)

Still Huffman attempted to draw a distinction between the current proposal and lawmakers eliminating August elections as a standing “as-needed” date on the election calendar.

“Do I have turnout concerns in school levies in August because very few people come out, and they’re done when people are on vacation, and they don’t know about it? And liquor permits and things like that, that typically happen? Yeah.” Huffman said.

“But I think in this case, it’s something that a lot of people are going to be very fired up about,” he added.

Huffman said he plans to have the special elections measure passed by mid to late April. He wants the House to have “ample consideration,” before the deadline to get the supermajority amendment on the ballot.

House headwinds

If House Speaker Jason Stephens has his way, though, the special elections bill may be dead on arrival.

“We just voted to not have those anymore just a few months ago,” Stephens told reporters Thursday. “The county election officials I’ve talked to are not interested in having it.”

“I’m frankly not interested in having an election in August,” he said.

Follow OCJ Reporter Nick Evans on Twitter.

Nick Evans has spent the past seven years reporting for NPR member stations in Florida and Ohio. He got his start in Tallahassee, covering issues like redistricting, same sex marriage and medical marijuana. Since arriving in Columbus in 2018, he has covered everything from city council to football. His work on Ohio politics and local policing have been featured numerous times on NPR.
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