In March, two former Ohio Republican Party leaders were convicted on racketeering and bribery charges in a scheme that federal prosecutors described as the state’s largest-ever corruption case. In total, five Republican operatives were indicted in the plot, which involved a power company bankrolling efforts to elect industry-friendly lawmakers and a new state House speaker who would support a $1.1 billion bailout of a failed nuclear power plant.
Now, despite the departure of the convicted Ohio Republican state House speaker and state party chair, the vestiges of Ohio’s GOP are still trying to undermine democracy in the state — and getting help from powerful outside groups.
In November, Ohio voters could decide on ballot measures covering abortion, cannabis legalization, and qualified immunity, the legal principle that protects government officials, including police, from many civil suits. Before those proposals are voted on, however, a separate measure put forward for an August special election could determine their fate. The measure would amend the state constitution to require more votes to approve the November ballot measures.
The constitutional amendment is deeply unpopular — it was first introduced in January and faced bipartisan opposition — but the proposal counts a major national political force among its supporters: Chicago-area billionaire Richard Uihlein, a GOP megadonor who supported groups involved in the January 6 attack in Washington and subsequent efforts to overturn elections.
The amendment is one of a raft of efforts in states across the country where extremist Republicans are taking drastic measures to circumvent the will of the public on issues like abortion, criminal justice, and education.
“It’s a broader project of enforcing political power for the hard-right-end of the Republican party.”
“It’s hard to come up with a better example of one individual — who, by the way, is of course not from Ohio and has no connection whatsoever to Ohio — using nothing but raw financial power to interrupt democracy,” Eli Szenes-Strauss — political director at Public Wise, a watchdog organization that has tracked Uihlein’s spending on election denial efforts — said of Uihlein. “It’s a broader project of enforcing political power for the hard-right-end of the Republican party.”
Uihlein’s support for the amendment to preempt the ballot measures is being funneled through a new political action committee formed in March called Save Our Constitution PAC, which is running ads in support of the change. Uihlein, founder of the shipping company Uline, gave the PAC $1.1 million last month. The contribution has not yet appeared in public financial disclosures and was first reported by the Columbus Dispatch. Uihlein has also funded smaller independent expenditures backing the measure, according to Public Wise, which also operates a PAC. (Neither Save Our Constitution PAC nor representatives for Uihlein responded to requests for comment.)
One of the country’s biggest conservative political donors, Uihlein was the primary funder of the group that organized the rally that preceded the January 6 attack on the Capitol. In the days after the attack, he and his wife gave more than $5 million to groups seeking to overturn the results of the presidential election. Last month in Wisconsin, the Uihleins poured money into a competitive state Supreme Court race and backed a conservative candidate who lost.
Critics of the constitutional amendment have pointed out that voting on the proposal in August, instead of November, could mean that Republicans pushing the measure are violating a recently passed election law — that was advanced by Republicans. The August vote, however, will go ahead as planned unless the state Supreme Court decides otherwise in response to a pending lawsuit.
An advocacy group called One Person One Vote filed the suit against the Ohio Ballot Board earlier this month, arguing that putting the measure on the August ballot would violate the GOP’s new voting law that went into effect this year. The law prohibits elections with statewide ramifications from occurring outside of the regular primary or general election, partially because of the low attention voters pay to elections held in off-months.
One Person One Vote filed a second suit on Tuesday against the ballot board, claiming that it adopted a “misleading, prejudicial ballot title and inaccurate, incomplete ballot language that improperly favor[s] the Amendment in flagrant violation [of] Ohio’s Constitution and laws and this Court’s jurisprudence.”
The irony of Republicans trying to break their own law by holding an election in a summer month when voters won’t be paying attention was not lost on political observers: Republicans could use low turnout to advance a measure that would allow a minority to stop constitutional changes with support from the majority of Ohio voters.
The proposed constitutional amendment asks voters to relinquish “the power of our majority vote and elevate minority rule in Ohio,” Ohio Capital Journal columnist Marilou Johanek wrote last week. Giving a minority of voters the power to block the majority could have an affect on hot-button issues, as in the case of abortion in Ohio, where a majority of voters — nearly 60 percent — support abortion rights.
Should it win in August, the constitutional change could make it harder to pass two other proposed November ballot initiatives that would legalize recreational cannabis and make it easier to hold police accountable for violating people’s civil rights. The second proposed change would prohibit the use of qualified immunity as a legal defense to civil actions brought under the amendment.
“Call it the tyranny of the minority over the will of most Ohio voters on abortion rights, on fair legislative districts, on commonsense gun safety, on minimum-wage increases,” Johanek wrote. The measure’s GOP sponsor and his colleagues “openly admit their plan is to thwart a likely pro-choice amendment on the November ballot with a preemptive legislative amendment to obliterate majority rule.”
Republicans claim the measure is an effort to fight outside special interests pushing a pro-abortion agenda. Those claims are belied by the fact that a billionaire from Illinois is funding the Republicans’ own anti-abortion effort.
“I’ll give them this, they’re very good at what they do,” said Szenes-Strauss, of Public Wise. “If I worked for them, I’d be pleased with their progress. It’s just a rolling effort to find a place where your money can make sure that people don’t do with democracy things that you’d rather they not do.”