Court Upholds Ohio’s “One Subject Only” Law for Voter Ballot Initiatives

Ohio, like most states, allows its state constitution to be amended via a “ballot initiative,” a proposed constitutional amendment that appears on the ballot state-wide and becomes part of the state constitution if it receives a simple majority of votes cast (other states require a supermajority).

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In 2016, a group of Ohio citizens wanted to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot that (1) imposed term limits on the justices of the Ohio Supreme Court, and (2) made all state laws apply equally to members of the state legislature as to the general public.  In the group’s view, the proposed amendment would make Ohio’s legislative and judicial branches more accountable to the public and to the voters.

But Ohio has a “one subject only” requirement as part of its ballot-initiative scheme.  As its name suggests, a proposed ballot initiative must be limited to “only one proposal of law or constitutional amendment.”  The Ohio Ballot Board, which is responsible for shepherding proposed ballot initiatives, rejected the group’s proposed amendment because it was not limited to one subject.  The group sued, claiming that Ohio’s one-proposal-only requirement violated their Fist Amendment rights.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the group’s argument, ruled for the state, and dismissed the case.  The Court found that Ohio’s one-subject rule did not restrict speech based on content because the law is simply a limit on the number of subjects, not the content of those subjects.  (Restrictions based on content are generally more problematic from a First Amendment standpoint.)  The Court then found that Ohio’s one-subject rule was justified because it enables voters to vote on each proposal separately—thereby making it a more democratic process—and because it reduces potential voter confusion.

[Editorial note: we can’t help but wonder why the group didn’t just argue that their proposal was limited to one subject—public/voter accountability.  Perhaps the state board or the Sixth Circuit might have agreed.  Or maybe the group considered this argument and decided that it was a loser.  Oh well.]

Case: Comm. to Impose Term Limits on Ohio Sup. Ct. & to Preclude Special Legal Status for Members & Emps. of the Ohio Gen. Assembly v. Ohio Ballot Bd., No. 17-3888 (6th Cir. Mar. 20, 2018) (opinion here)

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