Ohio citizens and organizers dismantle extremist special interest arguments for attacking voters
The attempt by more than 80 Ohio Statehouse Republicans and Secretary of State Frank LaRose to get voters to enshrine 41% minority rule over our state constitution in a special August election was passed out of an Ohio House Constitutional Amendments Committee Tuesday in a 7-6 vote, with all five Democrats on the committee voting against it alongside only one Republican.
I watched the committee chaired by state Rep. Phil Plummer, R-Dayton, for all four hours of opponent testimony, and probably the saddest, most easily anticipated, but nevertheless jarring thing about the final vote is how closed off to all concerns and common sense seven out of the eight Republicans on the committee apparently are.
“Impervious to reason” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Neither does “intellectually dishonest.” It’s truly something to behold.
Ulrichsville state Rep. Brett Hudson Hillyer was the only Republican on the committee thoughtful and honest enough to see all the merit in four hours of smart, compelling, detailed testimony dismantling the attack on Ohio voters at the behest of special interests to try to enshrine minority rule over our constitution.
The Ohio House faces a deadline of May 10 given by LaRose to get the measure on a “sleepy” August election ballot in 2023, as these lawmakers and the election-denying, Jan. 6-funding Illinois billionaire bankrolling their effort attempt to undermine an abortion rights amendment slated for November.
Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine has said that he will sign off on an August election, after signing off on eliminating them just months ago.
Their efforts toward this August election are opposed by more than 240 bipartisan Ohio groups, four bipartisan former governors, five bipartisan former attorneys general, and the entire association of Ohio election officials who administer our elections.
On the other side are the zealots and fanatics at Ohio Right to Life and the Center for Christian Virtue, various gun-ownership absolutist lobbyists, and the Ohio Restaurant Association.
Notably, poll after poll shows these groups are out of step with majorities of Ohioans on abortion rights, on gun violence protections, and on the minimum wage.
I’ve written plenty of columns already sharing my opinion about how this is a bad faith effort by corrupt, gerrymandered, extremist lawmakers to remove the last possible check of accountability on their total power to do whatever they want, whenever they want, to whomever they want, no matter the consequences, a majority of voters be damned. You can read those columns here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Today, I want to use my column space to turn over the microphone to all these patriotic Ohioans who shared well-reasoned, insightful, logical, historical, lived-experience, and fact-based testimony dismantling each and every disingenuous argument put forward by the proposal’s supporters.
Ohioan Michael Ahern told lawmakers he is appalled by the effort, and shared a history lesson about how the original early 19th Century Ohio Constitution gave voters no authority over the constitution, and gave the governor no veto power over the legislature, and left a Statehouse able to rule by fiat in defiance of the people. This could be considered similar to our current unconstitutionally gerrymandered supermajority legislature that can override the governor’s veto.
“There was no recourse in the constitution,” he observed. In 1851, a new constitution established veto power for the governor, and a simple majority voter say over constitutional changes. “That’s almost 175 years of precedent.” In 1912, another constitutional convention resulted in voters approving an amendment for citizen ballot initiatives. “Senate Joint Resolution 2 is an unprecedented attempt to roll back the authority of the Ohio electorate — an authority that was very deliberately written into our constitution … Let the record of history reflect that if you vote this legislation out of committee … you will be the first legislature in Ohio’s history to reduce the power of the electorate.”
Ohio Vietnam veteran Bill Lowers, 74, told lawmakers he is strongly opposed to the proposal, warning it would bring about dysfunction and an unfair advantage for minority viewpoints.
“This is blatantly unfair to the citizens who see amending the constitution as the only means available to deal with an important policy issue. This measure, if passed and enacted, will enshrine minority rule on Ohio citizens. This is wrong and I stand strongly against it.”
Lowers told lawmakers of his Navy experience seeing citizens in the Philippines lose their freedom under Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s.
“For 14 years that nation lost its freedom. Enshrining minority rule in America is a step down the path that Ferdinand Marcos took in the Philippines. Let’s not do it in Ohio. Minority rule is un-American.”
Trevor Martin is an Ohio native and volunteer organizer who told lawmakers about how the successful efforts to raise the threshold for constitutional amendments in Florida and Colorado were recent, and bankrolled by a massive drug company and other special interests that outspent their opponents by tens of millions of dollars.
In other words, the very thing Ohio Republicans are warning about — wealthy special interests hijacking the state’s constitution — is exactly how these efforts have been successful in other states. And now extremist right-wing Illinois billionaire Richard Uihlein is trying to do the same to Ohio.
Ohio voter advocates, organizers, and labor leaders
Common Cause Ohio’s Mia Lewis focused on how responsible Ohio voters have been over the years with our simple majority authority, and how the lawmakers have been shown the numbers and the evidence repeatedly, and that making it more difficult on citizens to pass ballot amendments would not protect them from the machinations of moneyed special interests. Quite the opposite.
This proposal all but ensures only the most moneyed and wealthy special interests will have the resources to carry citizen amendments forward. This is because in addition to requiring 60% plus one vote for passage, it also requires citizens gather signatures from all 88 Ohio counties, instead of the current 44, and it eliminates the “cure” period for organizers to correct things like wrong addresses listed on petitions.
Emily Cole of Ohio Families Unite for Political Action and Change emphasized the enormous disadvantage the proposal would make citizen grassroots groups suffer compared to well-financed national special interests.
“Frankly, if we look at the power dynamics in our Statehouse, we as Ohioans are ‘outside special interests’ because we are outside the sphere of power,” she said. “Our families will continue to stand up, speak out, and organize to defeat any effort that attempts to silence to majority to benefit the minority. We do this work from the heart, with a scrappy and dogged determination to build an Ohio that is fair for us all and free from a gerrymandered supermajority rigging each and every aspect of our political power spectrum to rule… I also promise you this: The Ohio that will turn out to vote on this is not the Ohio that you’re betting on.”
Anisa Liban of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-Ohio), told lawmakers how the proposal would hurt and further disenfranchise minority communities in Ohio.
“This impacts not only voting rights but health care access, access to education, civil and economic justice, and much more,” she said. “Resolutions like this obstruct the voting rights of every Ohioan… This resolution is honestly terrifying.”
What message are lawmakers sending to marginalized communities, she asked. What message are they sending to immigrants and refugees in Ohio who left their homes in pursuit of a just democracy?
Michael Weinman of the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police told lawmakers on behalf of 23,000 members that they oppose this effort to “move away from the one person, one vote ideals that are the basis for a simple majority rule in our democracy.”
“We believe that SJR 2 will weaken the power of the individual voters while doing nothing to address dark money or special interests,” he said.
Melissa Cropper of the Ohio Federation of Teachers noted that members of her organization identify as Democratic, Republican, and independent, and unanimously passed a resolution to oppose this amendment change.
“OFT members strongly value the rights we have as citizens of Ohio to have a direct say in our government by using citizen-led ballot initiatives. We respect the process that has been in place for over 100 years — a process that is stringent, requiring thousands of signatures in at least half of the counties to get on the ballot, and 50% plus one vote to win, thus still giving the voters of Ohio a fair chance to make changes that reflect their values. SJR 2 is an unfair process that would make it nearly impossible for a citizen-led ballot initiative to even get on the ballot.”
Collecting signatures from all 88 counties requires resources only the most moneyed special interests can generate, she said, and would potentially allow the smallest county in the state to suppress the will of the majority.
Mark Gavin Sr. of Black Environmental Leaders said the special August election is dripping with hypocrisy after GOP lawmakers just eliminated it.
“Time and time again, this body has bent the rules to spite Ohioans,” he said. “We’re talking about the future of democracy, and you’re rushing through the process as though we’re late for dinner. The citizens of Ohio deserve better.”
Gavin Sr. was asked about the cumulative impact of gerrymandering, the erosion of voting rights, and now this latest attack on Ohio voters. He recalled starting knocking on doors when he was 17. He’s now 33.
“Our voting rights have been chipped away at every year since I’ve been able to vote in Ohio,” he said. “And it gets harder and harder — every time I knock on a door, every time I make a phone call, every time I try to get someone to show up to a public event or meeting — because they think, why does it matter? Why does it matter for me, when they’re just going to do whatever they want in Columbus?”
Gary Daniels of the ACLU of Ohio, which is party to the lawsuits over Ohio’s abortion ban, told lawmakers that the ACLU of Ohio opposes the resolution for the simple reason that its supporters have not offered any compelling reasons to change Ohio’s current ballot process.
“To be clear, we do not think effective arguments exist to be made for such sudden and radical changes,” he said. “Ohio’s current ballot initiative process is burdensome and expensive. Should a campaign qualify for the ballot, the process becomes even more complex and expensive, with Ohio’s mix of urban, suburban, and rural audiences and locations, and local media markets spread across the state. All of this is precisely why few embark on attempts to change law and policy via the current ballot initiative process and fewer than that succeed.”
Daniels noted that anybody who’s collected signatures knows that getting 44 out of 88 counties is already by far the most burdensome part, and anybody who thinks it’s too easy has never tried to track down signatures on a rainy Tuesday in a Preble County Walmart parking lot.
“Requiring potentially hundreds of thousands of more signatures is bad enough. Eliminating the cure period in a state where many often move residences and are unnecessarily purged from voting rolls is even worse,” he said. “The switch from 44 to 88 counties guarantees that the only campaigns that will qualify for the ballot are the most extremely rich ones. Of course this is totally contrary to supporters’ contentions that SJR 2 will stop well-heeled, out-of-state special interests that are welcome to donate money to political campaigns and political parties, lobby legislators, and draft legislation, but now must be stopped.”
Ohioans know, and very few supporters are left pretending, Daniels said, that this involves anything but abortion and gerrymandering.
“SJR 2 is a terribly unfair and undemocratic proposal on its best day,” he said. “On all the other days, it is a rapid, reckless attempt by politicians to seize direct power from Ohio’s people and make them hostages to, instead of welcome participants in, the direction of our state. Especially when abortion rights and legislative districts are in play.”
OCJ Editor-in-Chief and Columnist David DeWitt has been covering government, politics, and policy in Ohio since 2007, including education, health care, crime and courts, poverty, state and local government, business, labor, energy, environment, and social issues. He has worked for the National Journal, The New York Observer, The Athens NEWS, and Plunderbund.com. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and is a board member of the E.W. Scripps Society of Alumni and Friends. He can be found on Twitter @DC_DeWitt
This commentary was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.