Secretary of State Frank LaRose (speaking) alongside Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, introducing a constitutional amendment requiring a 60% supermajority for all future citizen-led ballot amendments. (Photo by Nick Evans, OCJ.)

Comentary

David DeWitt

by DAVID DEWITT

Ohio Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose and state Rep. Brian Stewart have launched a frontal assault on voters’ ability to amend our state constitution, putting their knives at the neck of 110 years of citizen-led democratic progress in the Buckeye State.

Thinking that Ohioans are stupid and gullible enough to relinquish our democratic powers in abject subservience to their political party and its absolute control, they are rushing to bring a proposed amendment to voters in May that would subject citizen initiatives to a 60% threshold for passage of amendments.

The resolution was amended today (Thursday) to require 60% support for legislative-initiated amendments as well.

Nevertheless, House Joint Resolution 6 being rushed through lame-duck session by GOP lawmakers would itself still only require a simple majority for passage in May.

These Ohio Republicans stand athwart democracy, history, and even Teddy Roosevelt, who advocated for the power of citizen initiatives and referendum during the 1912 Ohio Constitutional Convention that introduced these powers adopted that year by Ohio voters.

Republicans control every statewide administrative office including governor, secretary of state, attorney general, auditor, and treasurer, as well as both the Ohio House and the Ohio Senate under supermajority gerrymanders, and a majority on the Ohio Supreme Court.

With GOP lawmakers continuing to create extremist laws that polls show strong majorities of Ohioans don’t want, while refusing to enact laws that majorities of Ohioans do want, for voters to relinquish their own last remaining check — the power of a popular majority of voters themselves — would be insane.

The history of the Ohio Constitution and citizen-led initiatives

 The opening of the 1912 Ohio Constitutional Convention. Photo from the Ohio History Connection.

Sparked by enormous public desire to end corruption and enshrine citizen powers of accountability with democratic reform, Ohio voters asserted their authority by passing Ohio Constitutional amendments in 1912 giving us the ability to bring citizen-initiated amendments, statutes, and referendums; guaranteeing due process in the state reflective of the U.S. Constitution; and passing a number of labor and workforce standards.

In fact, Ohio is currently operating under the third large-scale iteration of our state constitution. The first was adopted in 1802 and put in place alongside statehood in 1803; the second drafted and approved by voters in 1851 following an 1850 convention; and the third created with the 33 amendments passed by voters in 1912 after another constitutional convention that year.

The year 1912 was a heady time for good government and democratic reformers across the nation and in Ohio, coming at a kind of apex within the U.S. Progressive Era, which lasted from the 1890s to around 1920.

Much of this period fits politically in what historians call the Fourth Party System, where progressives and conservatives were part of factions within both the Republican and Democratic parties.

For instance, Democratic presidential nominee and eventual winner Woodrow Wilson, and former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt running on the “Bull Moose” ticket in 1912, both were considered progressive.

Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor in the White House, Ohio Republican William Howard Taft — whose 1908 opponent William Jennings Bryan joked that he had to run against two candidates, “a western progressive Taft and an eastern conservative Taft” — had become too conservative for Teddy’s liking, sparking his third-party challenge, and very probably dooming them both to lose to Wilson.

Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs also ran, as he did in five of six presidential elections from 1900 to 1920, with the exception of 1916 when he ran for Congress instead.

In 1912, Ohio went for Wilson with 41%, compared to 27% for Taft, 22% for Roosevelt, and 9% for Debs.

With rapid changes underway in America sparked by the industrial revolution, the 1912 Ohio Constitutional Convention eventually settled on 41 total amendments to propose to voters, of which 33 were passed and eight rejected.

Among the rejected were women’s right to vote, which would be gained later nationally under the 19th Amendment passed by Congress in 1919 and ratified in 1920; and the removal of the word “white” from the Ohio Constitution. That removal was eventually approved by voters 11 years later.

Eligible Ohio voters in 1912 were apparently keen on setting standards for factory working conditions, creating the eight-hour workday for public employees, installing a mandatory workers compensation system, and giving themselves authority at the ballot box over Ohio law and the state constitution itself. They were less in love with gender and racial equality.

Speaking at the 1912 Ohio Constitutional Convention in Columbus, Roosevelt firmly threw his support behind the efforts to create citizen initiative and referendum for Ohio voters, especially noting cases in which state legislatures become “misrepresentative.”

 Teddy Roosevelt. Photo from the U.S. Library of Congress.

“I believe in the initiative and the referendum, which should be used not to destroy representative government, but to correct it whenever it becomes misrepresentative. Here again I am concerned not with theories but with actual facts. … In actual practice it has been found in very many states that legislative bodies have not been responsive to the popular will. Therefore I believe that the state should provide for the possibility of direct popular action in order to make good such legislative failure.”

Of note, also in 1912, Roosevelt became among the nation’s most vocal and prominent supporters of women’s right to vote. In 1901, he invited African-American educator Booker T. Washington, who had become close to Roosevelt, to dine with his family at the White House, creating a national sensation as such a supper at the White House had never happened before in that era of segregation.

The Ohio GOP plot to thwart democracy

When the history of Ohio politics in the early 2020s is written, no one will be able to deny the clear and direct attack on democracy orchestrated by modern day Ohio Republicans.

In a disgusting and shameful process that began in August 2021, they have defied a bipartisan majority on the Ohio Supreme Court no less than seven times to force Ohio voters to cast ballots in unconstitutionally gerrymandered Statehouse and U.S. Congressional districts.

After compromising with redistricting reform advocates to bring anti-gerrymandering measures to the ballot, legislative leaders ignored the rule of law in their own initiatives for Statehouse districts, passed in 2015 by voters with more than 71% support, and for U.S. Congressional districts, passed by voters in 2018 with nearly 75% support.

 The Republican majority members of the Ohio Redistricting Commission. Top row from left, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Secretary of State Frank LaRose. Bottom row from left Ohio Auditor Keith Faber, House Speaker Bob Cupp, and Senate President Matt Huffman. Official photos.

Both of those reforms were repeatedly desecrated by Ohio Republicans including LaRose, determined to flout the will of the voters to instead consecrate their party’s own undue, gerrymandered legislative power.

And now Ohio voters are expected to be foolish enough to strip ourselves of our own power to hold these same politicians and lawmakers accountable?

To make the argument that other states require supermajorities for citizen-led amendments, as Stewart does, is to try to manipulatively wash away the context of this sustained assault on voters and democracy by Ohio Republicans.

These other states aren’t illegally gerrymandered to enshrine supermajority power for a simple majority party — a party that is now trying to put in supermajority requirements to kneecap a majority of voters.

To argue as they have that somehow it’s all fair because the Ohio legislature must propose initiative with supermajority votes, is to desperately try to erase the fact that the same legislature has been illegally gerrymandered — by them — for supermajority power, in violation of voters, the state supreme court, the Ohio Constitution, and the rule of law.

I can only assume they think Ohioans are idiots, or they wouldn’t try to sell us this trash bag full of hot garbage that they want us to dump on ourselves.

To give LaRose a teaspoon of credit, as contemptuous as he apparently is for Ohio voters’ general intelligence, they did just reelect him, so I’m not prepared to press him too hard on the point right now.

But I can say that LaRose’s arguments for attacking voters’ power are wildly deceitful and self-contradictory.

With regard to citizen-initiated amendments, 16 have been proposed in Ohio over the last 22 years, and just five have passed.

Of those five, only two would not have cleared the 60% threshold LaRose and Republicans are now proposing: one to increase the minimum wage in 2006 that got 57% support, and another from 2009 that brought casinos to the state and passed with 53% support.

Since 1912, Ohioans have brought citizen constitutional amendment ballot initiatives 71 times, with 19 amendments approved and 52 rejected.

Nevertheless, LaRose claims these citizen-led initiatives, which are so rarely passed, need to have the bar raised because “special interests” are allegedly taking over Ohio’s Constitution.

In no way does that make sense. And the reason his argument doesn’t make sense is because LaRose is being dishonest.

He wants to frame the Ohio Constitution as under attack, but he doesn’t have the evidence for it because of the failure rate of citizen-led ballot initiatives.

What he is really worried about is their potential for future success to act as the only check on absolute GOP power to enact extremist law promised to radical right-wing special interests, in defiance of Ohioans’ popular will.

Upcoming citizen initiatives

 A voter at the ballot maker machine during the Ohio primary election, May 3, 2022, at the Noor Islamic Cultural Center, Dublin, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for the Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.)

Redistricting reform advocates horrified by Ohio Republican lawlessness on gerrymandering are now looking to bring a new citizen-initiative to the ballot.

Even retiring swing-vote Republican Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor is looking to get in on that action.

On Nov. 10, abortion rights advocates said they are planning a ballot initiative to protect reproductive health care.

Exactly one week later, on Nov. 17, LaRose and Stewart announced this proposal to make it harder for these types of initiatives to pass.

In Kansas, voters protected access to abortion care with 59% support. Now LaRose wants to make Ohio’s threshold 60%. And he expects us to believe this is coincidence.

If anything, it tells us that Ohio Republicans know that a majority of Ohioans are not on their side when it comes to illegal gerrymandering, extremist abortion bans, and a slew of other issues, so they want to manipulate things so only a supermajority can stop them.

In other words, they feel like they have a shot at beating citizen initiatives by convincing 41% to vote against them, but not 51%.

As Teddy Roosevelt said, the power of initiative should not be used “to destroy representative government, but to correct it whenever it becomes misrepresentative.”

Frank LaRose and Ohio Republicans are asking Ohio voters to help them destroy representative government, and for a majority of voters to render themselves unable to correct lawmakers’ misrepresentation.

When it comes to democracy, these power-drunk, small-minded men aren’t worthy to carry Roosevelt’s jock.

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