COLUMBUS — Opponents of President Barack Obama’s signature health care law Wednesday filed 546,000 signatures in a bid to give Ohioans the constitutional right to reject the law’s mandate that citizens obtain coverage.
That’s nearly 160,000 more than the 387,000 valid signatures of registered voters needed to put the proposed constitutional amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot, but the amendment’s backers aren’t ready to rest yet. Knowing that many of the signatures are more than a year old, they will continue to gather more to supplement the petitions should the initial count come up short.
The effort has been spearheaded by the Ohio Liberty Council, the closest thing Ohio has to a statewide Tea Party organization. But its president, Chris Littleton, said support for the amendment stretches well beyond that.
“I have to get up and purchase a commercial product because the government says I have to do that," he said. “By that exact line of thinking, by that precedent, we would have to tell people they have to purchase a gym membership, because it accomplishes the same thing. I can tell you you must eat broccoli on Sundays or else I will fine you or put you in jail…
“That is not a solution to health care," Mr. Littleton said. “It simply increases the power of government…"
Linda Bishop, a retired teacher from Findlay, was never particularly politically active — until Mr. Obama won passage of the health care law with the help of what was then a Democratic-controlled Congress.
After personally working over 14 months to gather signatures, Ms. Bishop delivered the petitions to the secretary of state’s office to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot that would give Ohioans the right to reject federal mandates that citizens obtain health insurance and certain employers provide it or face penalties.
“I have children and grandchildren," she said. “I’m concerned about all of our futures and don’t like the direction our country is headed. I feel that if the federal government can force this product or any product on citizens, what’s next? This should have been a states’ rights issue from the beginning."
The left-leaning ProgressOhio said a coalition of health advocates, nurses, and others plan to pore over the signatures.
“The lack of public support for the amendment to take away your health care is glaring as it took Ohioans for Health Care Freedom, with support from the Ohio Republican Party, almost two years to collect the amount of signatures they filed today," said Brian Rothenberg, the group’s executive director.
“The promoters of this amendment that will take away your health care rights are part of a political network determined to use any issue to score political points,’’ he said. “In this case, the casualties will be Ohio citizens who will be denied the basics of having access to health care.’’
The general rule of thumb is usually to file roughly twice as many signatures as are needed to ensure the petitions would survive scrutiny by county boards of elections and particularly the courts. The petitions Wednesday fall well below that.
But those behind the petition effort claim to have an unusually high validation rate of roughly 85 percent. Even if the signatures fall short on the initial count, which must be completed by July 26, backers of the proposed amendment would get a 10-day grace period to supplement the petitions.
Ms. Bishop said she’s prepared to keep working.
“We know there will be ones that are invalid because people have moved or passed away," she said.
At times while out gathering signatures, Ms. Bishop found herself standing next to someone who was gathering signatures for the repeal of Senate Bill 5, Ohio’s new law restricting the collective bargaining power of public employees.
The Senate Bill 5 effort has been largely driven by private and public sector labor and the Ohio Democratic Party, which recently hosted a fund-raiser with Vice President Joe Biden.
The health care constitutional amendment’s largely volunteer-driven effort fell short in 2010, but it received a boost in recent months when the Ohio Republican Party went beyond last year’s endorsement and provided manpower and expertise to help put it over the top for 2011.
A separate organization was created that used both volunteers and paid signature-gatherers. Of the 547,000 submitted, about 105,000 came from paid petition circulators, a process also used by the backers of the Senate Bill 5 repeal.
If both qualify for the ballot, the outcome could serve as a contest between the political parties’ grassroots efforts, an indicator of their health going into the 2012 president election, and a way of simultaneously gauging the policies of Mr. Obama and Republican Gov. John Kasich among Ohioans.
The proposed constitutional amendment is likely to face a court challenge over whether a state constitution can overrule the federal constitution, but Maurice Thompson, director of the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, said the Ohio Supreme Court is unlikely to bar the question from the ballot before voters have spoken.
A number of court decisions in recent months have conflicted over whether the federal government has the authority under the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution to mandate the purchase of health insurance as part of governing interstate commerce.
Mr. Thompson said that, even if the U.S. Supreme Court should ultimately uphold the federal right’s government ability to impose the mandate, Ohioans could then make their own claim that the law violates their state constitutional rights.
In the meantime, the amendment, if approved by voters, would prohibit state and local governments from imposing similar mandates as Massachusetts did, he said.
He said this effort is very different from other past major constitutional amendment efforts like the one in 2009 legalizing casino gambling in the state.
“This is really the first time that people have come together to gather signatures in an effort like this simply for no self-interest, but to perpetuate philosophy, simply to be left alone," Mr. Thompson said.
Ohio’s proposed constitutional amendment does not challenge some aspects of the law that have proven more popular, such as the prohibition against insurance companies’ refusing coverage based on pre-existing conditions.
Instead, it targets the universal coverage provisions of the bill that mandate that citizens have health insurance by 2014, either through their employers, through the open insurance market, or through lower-cost state-run health care pools through which insurers would compete for customers.
It also challenges the mandate that certain employers provide coverage or face fines for failing to do so.
Ohio’s just enacted, $55.8 billion, two-year budget, does not assume passage of the amendment. It includes funding for the state to prepare for implementation of the mandate that it create a pooling system.
Mr. Thompson said Mr. Kasich would have to abandon such efforts to implement the federal health care law at the state level should this constitutional amendment pass.