Ohio Joins States Letting Voters Weigh In on Obama’s Health Law

As legal challenges to President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul proceed to a decisive U.S. Supreme Court battle, state ballot boxes are becoming skirmishing grounds in efforts to impede the law.

Ohio voters on Nov. 8 will decide an amendment to their constitution aimed at undercutting the federal Affordable Care Act, joining four states that considered similar measures last year and four slated to vote next year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Voters nationwide next year will consider the most ballot measures in more than a decade seeking to overturn laws passed by their legislators.

The votes aimed at Obama’s plan are “purely symbolic” because federal laws have supremacy over conflicting state measures, said Elizabeth Price Foley, a professor of constitutional and health-care law at Florida International University. A high court ruling upholding the law would trump state laws and amendments, she said.

“This is political posturing,” Foley said in a telephone interview from Miami.

The ballot measures are needed to ensure lawmakers don’t go further than the federal law, such as by trying to enact a government-run system, said Jeff Longstreth, spokesman for Ohioans for Healthcare Freedom. They also send a message to the Supreme Court about citizen opposition, said Eric Novack, an orthopedic surgeon in Phoenix who led a 2010 campaign to pass a constitutional amendment in Arizona.

Holding Them Back

The proposed Ohio amendment says that no federal, state, or local law or rule “shall compel, directly or indirectly, any person, employer, or health care provider to participate in a health care system.” It also would not allow bans or penalties on the sale and purchase of health care or insurance.

Voters in Arizona, Missouri and Oklahoma approved similar measures last year, and Colorado rejected one, the legislatures group said. Alabama, Florida, Montana and Wyoming have health-care issues on the ballot in 2012, the Denver-based group said.

The votes will have no influence on how the court rules, and until then, are a “colossal waste of time,” said Krysten Sinema, a Democratic state senator in Arizona and a member of Obama’s White House Health Reform Task Force.

Still, they can draw voters, said John C. Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron.

“That’s certainly part of the motivation,” Green said in a telephone interview.

Another Referendum

In Ohio, voters will also consider a separate referendum Nov. 8 on a law passed this year limiting collective bargaining for public employees. The Ohio Republican Party helped Ohioans for Healthcare Freedom, a Tea Party-affiliated group, gather 426,998 valid signatures to put the amendment on the ballot after supporters failed to collect enough in 2010.

The Republican Party’s goal was in part to attract voters who also would support the union-bargaining law referendum, said Brian Rothenberg, executive director or ProgressOhio, a Columbus nonprofit group that describes itself as a “progressive voice for Ohio citizens.”

“They probably look at this as a voter-turnout vehicle,” said Rothenberg, whose group sued unsuccessfully to keep the health-care issue off the ballot.

Welcome Reinforcement

Kevin DeWine, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, minimized the party’s role in getting the issue on the ballot, though he said it probably doesn’t hurt efforts to protect the union-bargaining law.

“It is nice to have another group on the ballot that thinks along the lines of most people in the Republican family,” DeWine said in a telephone interview.

A controversial measure can increase turnout among both supporters and opponents, said Jennie Bowser, a senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures. They can influence turnout by as much as 5 percent, said Green, the political-science professor.

“In a close election, that’s huge,” he said.

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