By Anna Rhoads
In 2019, the village of Yellow Springs, Ohio, voted to make a small change. That year, Yellow Springs’ 3,800 residents voted on a referendum to allow the tiny minority of the village’s 170 foreign-born residents who were still noncitizens to vote for local offices. The referendum passed with fifty-nine percent of the vote, setting off a chain reaction resulting in a new initiative to amend the state constitution that Ohioans will see on the ballot this November.
Largely in response to the Yellow Springs referendum and its success, Republican Representatives Jay Edwards and Bill Seitz sponsored H.J.R. 4, a joint resolution to amend Section 1 of Article V, Section III of Article X, and Section III of Article XVIII of Ohio’s constitution. Sponsors introduced the joint resolution on May 17th, and by the end of the month, it passed in the House and came to the Ohio Senate as S.J.R. 6. By June, the joint resolution passed in the Senate, too, becoming ballot initiative Issue 2. Issue 2’s certified ballot language describes the measure as amending the state constitution “to prohibit local government from allowing non-electors to vote.” In practical terms, these amendments would prevent local governments from allowing noncitizens who are legal permanent residents in Ohio to vote in local elections.
Issue 2’s proponents include Republican lawmakers. The initiative’s supporters argue that the proposed amendments would proactively ensure the clarity of election law in Ohio. Supporters see the initiative as a preventative measure that would avoid policies that have passed in cities in Left-leaning states, like in New York where recent measures allowed noncitizen legal permanent residents to vote locally. They contend that although Ohio and federal law prevent noncitizens from voting, there is a risk that localities will be able to allow noncitizens to vote locally, using the state constitution’s “home rule,” which gives localities ultimate control over local affairs. Supporters, including Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, note that letting noncitizens vote locally could increase administrative burdens. More fundamentally, the initiative’s proponents view American elections as solely for American citizens and believe that allowing noncitizen residents to participate even locally would undermine fundamental American values.
However, Issue 2’s opponents, including the Ohio ACLU, Yellow Springs officials, Ohio’s Democratic lawmakers, and the Ohio Environmental Council Action Fund, take issue with the initiative for several reasons. Issue 2’s opponents note that federal and Ohio law already make citizenship a prerequisite to being eligible to vote and that home rule does not give localities carte blanche to draft laws in conflict with federal and Ohio law. In fact, although Yellow Springs voted to allow noncitizens to vote in local elections, citing home rule as allowing them to make this change, no noncitizens have voted in Yellow Springs (or any other Ohio locality, for that matter) because Secretary LaRose “ordered officials to table the measure.” Secretary LaRose has sent criminal referrals to noncitizens who have allegedly registered to vote, and noncitizens who fail to cancel their registration after a second notice can face felony charges. As such, opponents argue that the initiative is unnecessary and does not serve the prophylactic purposes Republican lawmakers claim. Opponents argue that instead, Republican lawmakers are using the initiative to signal to “Replacement Theory” and “Big Lie” adherents that their violently xenophobic views have merit. As such, opponents view the initiative as a purely political move that “can only add fuel to the wave of fanatical xenophobia.” Opponents argue that this political move is also designed to gin up a wave of Republican voter turnout in November when a United States Senate seat, all five statewide offices, the General Assembly, and control of the Ohio Supreme Court will be up for grabs. Additionally, Issue 2’s opponents say that the initiative’s amendments will change the state constitution’s provisions from a grant of voting rights to a restriction on voting rights. Thus, the initiative stealthily threatens the General Assembly’s power to liberalize voter registration requirements by permitting those who have registered less than thirty days before an election to vote as well as current laws allowing seventeen-year-olds to vote in primaries if they will be eighteen by the general election.
Changing Ohio’s voting laws has been a project of Ohio’s Republican lawmakers since 2020, and Issue 2 continues this trend. However, with measures to allow noncitizen residents to vote locally proving popular in other statesand some of Ohio’s cities, Republicans may need more than a Red wave in November to pass this initiative.