How hard is it to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot?

A lot has been said about a potential constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana in recent weeks. The process to put the proposed amendment on the ballot came to a halt late last month when Attorney General Mike DeWine rejected the initial petition submitted by ResponsibleOhio, but a revised petition has been resubmitted and certified. It raises the question – how do you get a constitutional amendment on the ballot?

First of all, there are two ways to initiate a constitutional amendment. The first is through the General Assembly, which can pass a constitutional amendment and submit it to voters for approval. The second is what is called a “citizen-initiated constitutional amendment.” This is the process currently being used for the marijuana issue. Here’s a breakdown of how it works:

  1. File an initial petition with the Attorney General – The initial written petition, with the full text and summary of the amendment, must be submitted to the AG with 1,000 signatures. The signatures must come from “qualified electors,” essentially meaning they are registered voters in the state of Ohio. The AG will certify the amendment if the summary is a “fair and truthful statement” of the proposed amendment. Once certified by the AG, it is submitted to the Ohio Ballot Board for certification. The Ballot Board checks to make sure the petition contains only one amendment.
  2. Gather signatures – Once the amendment is certified, it must meet certain signature requirements. First, the total number of signatures (from qualified electors) must equal 10% of the total votes cast for governor in the most recent gubernatorial election. Since voter turnout in 2014 was low, the total number of signatures needed has dropped by approximately 80,000 to 305,591, making this step easier. Second, they must be obtained from 44 of Ohio’s 88 counties. Third, each of the 44 counties must have signatures equal to at least 5% of the total votes cast for governor in that county in the most recent gubernatorial election.
  3. Submit to Secretary of State for signature verification – Once the required number of signatures are obtained they are submitted to the Secretary of State. The deadline for submission is no later than 125 days prior to the election, which would be July 1 this year. The Secretary of State then validates the signatures, ensuring they meet certain standards. The verification rates can vary widely. A good rule of thumb for a campaign is to submit twice as many signatures as needed.
  4. Gather supplemental signatures if necessary – If enough signatures are tossed out causing the effort to fall short of the required number, the campaign is given supplemental time to gather additional signatures. Signatures cannot be gathered during the verification process, but rather during a 10-day window after the Secretary of State has notified the campaign.
  5. Ohio Supreme Court reviews any petition or signature challenges – The Ohio Supreme Court has jurisdiction over any challenges to petitions or signatures. Challenges typically come from the opposing campaign or political party.
  6. Ballot language and arguments determined – If the amendment has enough signatures and survives any challenges, it is ready to be prepared for the ballot. The Ohio Ballot Board determines the ballot language, and arguments for and against are written by both campaigns. The arguments allow voters to make an assessment at the ballot box even if they have no previous knowledge of the issue.
  7. Voters determine the fate of the amendment on Election Day with a simple vote of “Yes” or “No.”
  8. If approved, the amendment becomes effective 30 days after the election.

As you can see, it is a long and challenging process to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot. The signature requirements tend to separate the serious campaigns from the not-so-serious, as it can be costly and takes a fairly sophisticated operation. ResponsibleOhio seems to be in the “serious campaigns” category, having reportedly spent $1.3 million already. We’ll know by mid-summer whether the marijuana amendment or any others have made November’s ballot.

For more details on the process, check out the Secretary of State’s website.

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