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Billionaire backing effort to raise Ohio amendment threshold funded election deniers, Jan. 6 rally


Billionaire backing effort to raise Ohio amendment threshold funded election deniers, Jan. 6 rally

May 02, 2023 | 5:00 am ET
By Marty Schladen
Billionaire backing effort to raise Ohio amendment threshold funded election deniers, Jan. 6 rally
COLUMBUS, Ohio — MARCH 22: State Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, speaks to reporters after the House Constitutional Resolutions committee meeting first hearing on HJR 1 that would require 60% vote to approve any constitutional amendment, March 22, 2023, at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.)

An out-of-state donor who wants to make it a lot harder for voters to amend the Ohio Constitution has a history of supporting candidates who falsely deny the results of the 2020 presidential election — and he’s a major supporter of groups that helped organize the rally on Jan. 6, 2021 that led to a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of five former attorneys general on Monday added their names to a swelling group that is opposed to the move. They join four former governors — two Republicans and two Democrats — more than 200 groups of all political stripes, and a group representing the state’s election workers that have all come out in opposition to the August election plan.

The Columbus Dispatch last week reported that Illinois billionaire Richard Uihlein had donated more than $1 million to a PAC supporting the effort to require 60% of the vote to pass a citizen-initiated constitutional amendment, as opposed to the current 50% requirement, which has been in place since 1912. Even though proponents want to make future amendments 20% harder, the one they’re pushing can pass with just the current 50% threshold. 

Despite the positions taken by former officeholders, it appears that most of the Republicans who have power now — those in the legislature and in statewide office  — support restricting citizen access to the state’s fundamental document. 

The state Senate last week voted to put the matter on the August ballot. That was less than a month after a bill they passed last year took effect that eliminated low-turnout August elections.

The Ohio House needs 60 Republican votes to pass the bill out of that chamber — if Speaker Jason Stephens, R-Kitts Hill, brings the matter up for a vote. Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a major supporter of making it harder for voters to amend the Constitution, has said that resolutions must be passed out of the legislature by May 10 if they are to be placed on the August ballot.

Among the shifting reasons LaRose has given for the move is to keep powerful out-of-state interests from meddling with the Ohio Constitution. But his sidekick in the effort, Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, last year gave Republican colleagues a different reason: He wanted to block an abortion-rights amendment that seems headed for the November ballot. And he said he wanted to block another anti-gerrymandering amendment after the Republican-dominated Redistricting Commission ignored seven orders from the Republican-controlled Ohio Supreme Court to submit fairer congressional and legislative maps.

The news that the major supporter of the effort to restrict voter access to the Constitution is an out-of-state billionaire further undermines LaRose’s claim that he wants to block out special interests. And the politics of Uihlein, one of the biggest donors to conservative causes, might bring further scrutiny.

Just before last year’s midterm elections, ProPublica ran a story about the shipping-supply magnate titled “That Cardboard Box in Your Home Is Fueling Election Denial.” It described Uihlen’s ardent endorsement of his father’s politics even though the father, Edgar Uihlein Jr., was a high-ranking member of the far-right, conspiracist John Birch Society who supported racist politicians such as former Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

Richard Uihlein has also contributed to extreme causes.

Last July, the Chicago Tribune reported that he was a major contributor to the “March to Save America” rally that preceded the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. The younger Uihlein also has given nearly $8 million since 2016 to the Tea Party Patriots, another group that was instrumental in putting on the Jan. 6 rally.

Uihlein has continued to support assaults on American democracy since. He gave support to Doug Mastriano, last year’s failed gubernatorial candidate from Pennsylvania who attended the Jan. 6 rally and who falsely claimed the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump. Uihlein also supported Jim Marchant, an election denier and conspiracy theorist who lost his 2022 bid to become Nevada’s top elections official.

A Daily Beast analysis published last November said that Uihlein and his wife contributed almost $2 million since the catastrophe on Jan. 6, 2021 to Republicans. Of that, more than 80% went to candidates “who have denied or questioned the 2020 election results,” the news organization reported.

The major funder of the effort to make it harder for voters to change the Ohio Constitution seems to have a problematic relationship with democracy. Meanwhile, five of the state’s former top lawyers on Monday said those interests would be harmed if the effort is successful.

“Constitutions are designed to endure, and major changes in fundamental constitutional arrangements should not be made unless the changes are supported by a careful understanding of the policies being changed and the consequences of the proposed changes,” said the letter, which was signed by former attorneys general Jim Petro and Betty Montgomery, who are Republicans, and Richard Cordray, Nancy Rogers and Lee Fisher, who are Democrats. 

They added, “Such changes should not be made without the opportunity for participation of those most intimately affected by the Constitution — the people. Clearly, that has not happened in this rush to revise our Constitution.”

Last week, Republican former governors Bob Taft and John Kasich joined Democrats Dick Celeste and Ted Strickland in slamming LaRose’s and Stewart’s proposal, which would cut voters’ power relative to that of the state’s gerrymandered legislature.

The former attorneys general on Monday cited instances in which they believed Ohioans were well served by the current amendment process, which was spearheaded by former President Theodore Roosevelt as part of an anti-corruption movement 111 years ago.

“Ohio’s experience with amending the constitution has worked well,” they said. “The constitutional initiative, though only rarely used, has been the vehicle for the adoption of important policies that affect all Ohioans, including county home rule, the 10-mill limitation on un-voted property taxes, the prohibition of taxes on food, the elimination of straight party ticket voting, the adoption of legislative term limits, and the adoption of the minimum wage.”