Despite Broad Public Opposition, Ohio GOP Pushes Its War on Democracy

Blue background with red signs that read "road closed," "detour," "no entry," "beware of GOP," "do not enter," that surround a vintage-looking image of the Ohio Constitution

The impacts of gerrymandering in Ohio strike again: despite massive public opposition, state Republican legislators moved yesterday to enshrine minority rule by passing a constitutional amendment proposal that could gut direct democracy rights in the state. 

At the heart of the latest democracy fight in Ohio is Senate Joint Resolution 2, which passed out of the Legislature yesterday and which would crank up the win threshold for constitutional amendments to a supermajority, meaning 60% of the vote. For 111 years (and with no real opposition from Republicans until last November), Ohio voters have enjoyed the right to approve constitutional amendment proposals with a simple majority vote. 

In addition to the increased win threshold, their goal is to get this proposal before Ohio voters this August in hopes of derailing a pro-choice amendment that could appear on the ballot this November. One small hiccup about that August election piece, though, is that at the end of last year’s legislative session —  just five months ago — legislative Republicans outlawed all August elections except ones for local emergency funding levies. No matter, S.J.R. 2 was passed mostly along party lines and is planned to head to voters on August 8, 2023.

For a brief stretch of time, it seemed like S.J.R. 2 was stalling, offering a momentary (if unlikely) glimmer of hope. Just as recently as last week, a hearing for S.J.R. 2’s former companion bill, Senate Bill 92, which would have resurrected an August election and allocated the $20 million necessary to administer it, was nixed and the bills were taken off the schedule for a full House vote. An amendment was offered to S.J.R. 2 that hinted that perhaps the underlying 60% threshold measure would pass, but not for an August election, instead pushing the issue to appear side-by-side with the abortion ballot issue later this fall. 

But in a tale as old time here in Ohio, Republicans reverted back to their original plan to undermine the power of the people and of our votes in furtherance of their extremist anti-choice and anti-democracy agenda. For them, no amount of opposition is enough to stop their laser focused efforts to maintain their outsized and unearned grips on political power – our democracy and the voices of the people be damned.

It wasn’t enough that a coalition of Ohio groups — now up to 245 organization members — came together in opposition to the proposals and has organized three massive rallies at the state capitol, gotten more than 300 pieces of opposition testimony submitted, sent thousands of emails and made phone calls to legislative offices, and published dozens of letters to the editor in newspapers across the state. 

But this level of organized people-led opposition to a proposed bill is no match for our gerrymandered legislators; they don’t much care what we have to say. To drive this point home, testimony was cut short in a recent hearing on the proposal and the Speaker cleared the House chamber’s gallery and cut off live coverage cameras during their S.J.R. 2 vote yesterday. So much for the statehouse being the People’s House.

How shameful that Republican state lawmakers are so easily able to ignore the constituents they are sworn to represent.

It wasn’t enough that a bipartisan group of former Ohio governors and state attorneys general came out in opposition to the issue. They publicly denounced the 60% proposal and the notion of hosting a special August election where perhaps just 8% of Ohio’s voters will decide whether we should enshrine minority rule into our state constitution. In their letter to the Ohio Legislature, the former attorneys general wrote, “Such changes should not be made without the opportunity for participation of those most intimately affected by the constitution — the people. Clearly, that has not happened in this rush to revise our constitution.”

And in an elegant swipe given Republicans’ flip flop on the issue of August elections, former Republican Gov. and Secretary of State Bob Taft wrote: “I concur with current Secretary of State Frank LaRose when he declared ‘August special elections aren’t good for the taxpayer, elections officials, voters or the civic health of our state.’” LaRose swatted this away, quipping that “they’re just wrong on this one.”

It wasn’t enough that bipartisan county election officials oppose an August election that “would be unreasonably expensive on a per-ballot basis, threatens to further exhaust elections workers, and could leave a massive constitutional question in the hands of a thin turnout.” And neither were their warnings that they see bringing back August elections as a “slap in the face” from electeds who are using them like, in their words, political pawns. 

It wasn’t enough that state House Democrats struck a rumored deal with Republican Rep. Jason Stephens in exchange for electing him — a self-professed moderate — as the House Speaker over the more conservative choice, Rep. Derrick Merrin (R). Though House Minority Leader Allison Russo (D) has played relatively coy about what was in said deal (or whether it even exists), she has said that “agreements, compromises, and known Democratic wants” were communicated as part of pre-vote conversations with Stephens, including those regarding pulling the brakes on S.J.R. 2. Even members of the Merrin camp — still salty about their surprise loss — hinted that stalling the 60% threshold was a part of this deal, but no matter, that wasn’t enough.

And it wasn’t enough that a recent and (even by Ohio standards) shocking revelation came out that it is Richard Uihlein, an Illinois billionaire who’s funded election-denying candidates and the Jan. 6 insurrection, who is bankrolling the campaign in support of the 60% threshold measure. Uihlein cut a staggering nearly $1.1 million check to the Save Our Constitution PAC, the main dark money group urging the resolution’s passage. Yes, you read that right. It is a Republican megadonor from a couple states over who is the biggest funder of the efforts to (as one of the bill sponsors state Sen. Theresa Gavarone (R) always says) “protect our state’s founding document from well-funded, out-of-state special interests.” 

opinion Abortion Rights Are at the Center of Ohio GOP’s Latest Attack on Democracy

By Katy Shanahan, Democracy Docket contributor and Ohio-based activist.

Now you might be thinking to yourself that surely Republicans aren’t so brazen to actually say they’re protecting us against well-funded out-of-state special interests when it is quite literally a well-funded out-of-state special interest who is currently paying for their latest attack on our right to dictate our political future, but they most certainly and shamelessly are. 

And who’s to say what happened to the few Republicans who had the moral tenacity (at some point) to refuse to partake in their colleagues’ about-face antics. As recently as last week it didn’t appear that there were enough Republicans willing to flip flop on August elections. But I guess they all figured out whatever they needed to do under the pressure of increasing attack ads and even thinly veiled threats from Sec. LaRose. 

How shameful that Republican state lawmakers are so easily able to ignore the constituents they are sworn to represent. It wasn’t enough that advocates from across the state — from Lake Erie to the Ohio River and who represent political parties across the spectrum — came out in nearly unanimous opposition to this. Or that nine former statewide elected officials — Democrats and Republicans — came out in unified opposition to these matters given their own experience using direct democracy to accomplish major and beneficial policy goals. Or that election officials — the fine people who run our elections and who have been asked to withstand so much in the last three years — are begging for a break. Or even that these legislators passed S.J.R. 2 with the hopes of forcing it on an August ballot without the necessary statutory language to dictate a special election. No, for Ohio Republicans it doesn’t much matter what any of us have to say. It’s their way or no way. 

Despite this stinging loss, there’s an important lesson here. In order to beat attempts to undermine the power of the people, we all have to forcefully stand together in opposition and fight back to defend our democracy. Without the full power of our votes, we have nothing. We know that and they do, too. It’s why they work so hard to undermine it. And the only thing that’ll save us is the exact type of unified and forceful opposition Ohioans put on display in recent months. The fight for our democracy took a major hit today, but our work goes on. It has to.

Katy Shanahan is an attorney and activist in her home state of Ohio where she continues to fight for fair maps and expansive voting laws in the Buckeye State. As a contributor to Democracy Docket, Shanahan writes about the state of voting rights in Ohio as well as redistricting both in Ohio and across the country.