For the third time in four years, Ohio voters soundly rejected a constitutional amendment that cost supporters millions to put on the ballot. There is concern on both sides over the cost and the results of the vote on Issue 1.
“Despite being outspent on TV $10 million to $1 million, we will defeat this issue soundly because the people of Ohio said no,” said campaign manager David Myhal, made the announcement on election night to opponents of the only statewide ballot issue – as opposition campaign spokesman Dale Butland did last year with the issue that sought to bring down the price of prescription drugs: “I think the vast majority of Ohio voters recognize that this was a deeply flawed proposal,” Butland said then.
And in 2015, as opposition campaign leader Curt Steiner did after the defeat of a plan to allow for ten growing sites to produce legal marijuana: “They saw through the smoke screen of slick ads, fancy but deceptive mailings, phony claims about tax revenues, and of course Buddy the marijuana mascot.”
Backers of the marijuana issue in 2015 spent $21.5 million and lost two-to-one. Supporters of the drug price issue last year raised more than $18 million, but opponents spent more than 3 times that convince nearly 8 in 10 Ohioans to vote against it.
This year’s amendment would have lowered drug crimes to misdemeanors and channeled the savings from the reduction in the prison population into drug treatment. And unofficial results show nearly two thirds of Ohioans voted against it. Opponents included judges, law enforcement, local governments, and treatment providers. Myhal calls his group’s Issue 1 opposition campaign a grassroots effort, led by a big ad, press conferences, information on social media, and 15,000 pieces of literature. “The overall spend was $1.75 million on our side, and the other side spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $12 million on TV, probably $15 million if you include the $3 million to put it on the ballot,” said Myhal. And he suggests the figure could be even higher.
Sources say the Yes on 1 side spent at least $7.8 million. Dennis Willard speaks for those supporters, but doesn’t confirm these big dollar figures. “We’re not looking at it that way. We raised a lot of awareness and education about the opioid epidemic and how many people are going without treatment in Ohio,” Willard said. “We also raised a lot of information and education about our overcrowded prison system. We still are going to move forward.”
Some opponents have criticized Issue 1 as a creation of out-of-state billionaires including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and philanthropist George Soros. And Myhal suggested lawmakers look at changing some of the requirements to get to the ballot.
Willard, with the Yes on 1 side, also worked with the supporters of last year’s drug price issue, which also was funded largely by activists outside of Ohio. And he said ballot issues are important for frustrated citizens. “No, actually, I really think that it’s critical in Ohio that we continue to protect the people’s rights to go directly to voters when the legislature won’t do their job.”
But there is one thing on which both sides say they agree. Activist Shakyra Diaz talked about that at the Yes on 1 watch party on election night, before the issue was called but after it was clear it was losing. “Issue 1 was only the beginning. The truth of the matter is that Ohio is still going to be the fifth largest prison state in the nation. By the end of the night, 14 people will die of an overdose,” Diaz said. “We have a lot of work to do in Ohio, and we’re not going to stop. Ohioans need us to keep going.”
And the no side agrees, saying they want to meet with lawmakers on some solutions. House Speaker Ryan Smith hasn’t promised to take up any new legislation on criminal justice reform, saying he wants to see how a prison diversion pilot program in the current budget is working.