Commentary: After 20 Years, Time To Look At Ohio Constitution

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Opening of Ohio's last Constitutional Convention, Ohio Statehouse, January 9, 1912.(Photo: Ohio Historical Society)
Opening of Ohio's last Constitutional Convention, Ohio Statehouse, January 9, 1912.(Photo: Ohio Historical Society)

It is that time of year again. The weather is finally beginning to turn chilly after a very hot summer. The young – and sometimes not so young – have returned to school. The eyes of sports fans have turned from baseball to football. And Ohio is yet again in a central place what has been an often tumultuous and even informative election year. I say “informative” because I cannot recall ever receiving so many telephone call, email messages, printed materials – and yes, even personal visits from people asking for my vote or wishing to know how I was going to vote or both.

Such are the joys of life in a “swing state.”

In the midst of all of the national, state and local electoral contests currently underway, what sometimes is overlooked until one is standing in the voting booth are at least some of the constitutional amendments on the ballot as well.

State Issue One asks “Shall there be a convention to revise, alter or amend the Ohio Constitution?” Since there has been little or no debate, argumentation or controversy about this issue – and therefore little advertising- many voters may wonder why this question is even on the ballot.

And therein hangs a tale.

The people who founded Ohio had come into the new country from the East and South determined to find a better life. Having survived a violent American Revolution and the rather disordered years that followed, many – if not most-of these people saw the need for the kind of stronger government promised by the US Constitution of 1787 – but they still had a fundamental distrust of governments of any kind. Many would say they still do.

In any case, the founding fathers of Ohio adopted a Constitution similar to the national one in 1802. Like the national one, Ohio’s first Constitution created separate branches of government, included a bill of rights and – like the federal Constitution-was rather difficult to amend. Unlike the national model, Ohio’s Constitution placed enormous power in the hands of its legislature – the Ohio General Assembly.

Over the course of the first half of the nineteenth century it became increasingly clear that state government was not working as well as one might wish. Despite increasing concerns, a call for a constitutional convention in 1819 was defeated. Partisan infighting continued to keep state government from doing much of its work. And the construction of roads, canals and other “improvements” had led to a massive increase in government debt. A proposal for a constitutional convention to correct these and other problems was approved by a more than 3-1 majority in 1849.

The Constitution of 1851 that followed this convention is still the basic law of the State of Ohio. Perhaps because it had been so difficult to get some substantive change, the constitution specified that the people should be asked every twenty years whether a constitutional convention should be held. In most cases, the people have said “thanks, but no thanks.”

Most but not all.

On November 8, 1910, the people of Ohio, perhaps buoyed the spirit of the Progressive Movement sweeping across America, approved a call for a convention by a 10-1 margin. The convention that followed did not adopt a new constitution. Rather the convention submitted a long list of 41 amendments for approval. Some important ones like Home Rule for Ohio cities and direct government by initiative, recall and referendum were passed. Other like woman suffrage did not.

Since 1910, Ohioans have been asked four times whether they would like to have another Constitutional Convention. On each occasion they have said “no.”

There are probably several reasons why. The Ohio Constitution has become considerably easier to amend over the years. The process is simpler and the number of signatures required for a constitutional initiative is easier to obtain. Also, the ease and efficiency of using a Constitutional Revision Commission has reduced the desire by some groups – in and out of government – to call for a convention.

Will Ohio ever have another Constitutional Convention? Probably. Will it be as a result of the vote on State Issue One on November 6, 2012? We shall soon find out.