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A Brazen Attack on Direct Democracy in Ohio

Conservative legislators sought to end majority rule by slipping in a constitutional amendment in a low-turnout August special election.

Last Updated: August 9, 2023
Published: August 3, 2023

UPDATE: The proposal to make it more difficult to pass citizen ballot initiatives was rejected by Ohio voters by a wide margin.

For decades, conservatives in Ohio have kept themselves in charge through extreme gerrymandering. But that’s not enough for them. Now this supermajority is going after one of the few remaining checks on their power: the citizen ballot initiative, a state constitutional right since 1912 that enables Ohio voters to enact state laws directly, without legislative approval. The conservative legislators are aiming to make the ballot initiative so difficult to pull off that voters will fail or will be too daunted to try. To enact these changes, lawmakers need to get a proposed constitutional amendment past voters. So they’ve called a special election on … August 8, a sleepy time when voter turnout is low. This is a sneak attack on democracy.

Early voting is already underway on Issue 1, the measure that, if passed, would make future ballot initiatives difficult if not impossible to introduce and pass. The amendment would add onerous signature-collection requirements and require a 60 percent supermajority vote for passage. Just as threats to undermine election results are on the rise, partisan extremists are also looking to steal power away from voters by taking away this form of direct democracy.

In Ohio, the strategy is clear: Put an unpopular antidemocratic measure to a vote in a month when families are on summer vacation, college students are away, and turnout is notoriously low. Describe it on the ballot in confusing language. Then count on out-of-state billionaires to flood the airways with ads to drive a small segment of voters to the polls. Illinois billionaire Richard Uihlein, fresh from bankrolling election denialist candidates and Jan. 6 insurrectionists, donated $4 million dollars.

The brazenness of this power grab is matched only by its hypocrisy. Just a few months ago, the legislature banned August elections after last year’s August election saw less than 8 percent turnout and cost taxpayers $20 million. At the time, one prominent Republican state official explained that allowing “just a handful of voters” with a “vested interest” decide major issues “isn’t the way democracy is supposed to work.”

The legislature’s effort to restrict citizen initiatives is part of an alarming national trend. Ohio is following a playbook from ArizonaNorth DakotaFlorida, and Wisconsin, among others to erode an American tradition that for more than a century has served as a bulwark for democracy.

Like other states that have the citizen initiative, Ohio voters fought for this form of direct democracy to counteract political cartels that captured the legislature in the late 19th century. When delegates to the 1912 Ohio constitutional convention adopted a new amendment to create the citizen initiative process and referred the measure to voters, corrupt politicians used “every ruse and trick” to frighten voters from supporting the amendment, but it passed with 58 percent of the vote (but not 60 percent!).

Now Ohio voters are up against extreme gerrymandering, vote suppression, and billionaire mega donors. The initiative process has offered a partial corrective to this imbalance. Over the years, Ohio voters have used it to institute term limits, raise the minimum wage, and create a crime victim rights amendment, among other measures.

Voters in the 15 other states that have the citizen initiative process have also made good use of the tool to circumvent unresponsive legislators and to protect the democratic process itself. Citizens turned to initiatives to create independent redistricting commissions in Arizona, California, and Michigan, where they also passed automatic voter registration and other voting rights measures. In Florida, they restored voting rights for individuals with felony convictions who have served their sentences. In Missouri, they banned lobbyist gifts to lawmakers. Voters have made policy in other areas as well, enacting wage increases in states like Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Maine, and Nebraska; expanding Medicaid in Idaho, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Utah; and securing reproductive rights in Michigan.

Precisely because referenda have served as a check against gerrymandered legislatures and other political corruption, they’re now squarely in the crosshairs of powerful politicians.

Republicans in Ohio, as elsewhere, say they want to curtail ballot initiatives because these have become a tool for “special interests.” That justification is hard to take at face value, given recent massive corruption scandals in the Ohio legislature and given that the proposed amendment itself is being bankrolled by an out-of-state megadonor.

Behind the scenes, proponents of Issue 1 admit that they’re trying to head off popular ballot measures protecting reproductive and voting rights. After the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade in June 2022, an Ohio law briefly took effect banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. That ban is currently on hold by a state court, but not before dramatically harming Ohioans. For the short time it was in effect, the law forced a 10-year-old rape victim to travel to Indiana for care and denied women treatment for dangerous pregnancy complications. Ohio voters are now preparing to strike back, with abortion rights advocates filing the necessary signatures to put an initiative enshrining reproductive rights up for a vote this November. In recent years, every time reproductive rights have been on the ballot, they’ve won majority support, even in conservative states; and Ohio appears no different.

Republicans also fear that the citizen initiative process will be used to counter their extreme gerrymandering. In 2015 and again in 2018, Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved redistricting reforms with the hope of fairer legislative and congressional districts, but those reforms have been hijacked by conservatives. In the most recent round of map drawing, the Ohio supreme court invalidated gerrymandered districts seven times. Still, the partisans in charge of drawing maps simply ignored the court, effectively breaking a redistricting system intended by voters to encourage bipartisanship. Many in the state recognize the need for additional reform.

Issue 1 is a desperate attempt by unresponsive politicians to head off these popular reforms and lock in their ability to engineer majorities or even supermajorities for decades to come. That’s why it must be rejected. The results from the Ohio election will reverberate across the country.

This piece was originally published by Newsweek.