How Ohioans Saved Direct Democracy for Us All

Light blue background with Statue of Liberty falling to the side and blue-toned figures pulling it back into place with ropes and a white-toned image of the shape of Ohio.

In the one year since the fall of Roe v. Wade, extremist politicians have dramatically increased their efforts to disrupt the democratic process — a desperate attempt to strip people of their right to champion themselves. Now, legislatures nationwide are attempting to erode the ballot initiative process by imposing restrictions that undermine critical checks and balances on legislative overreach.

On Tuesday, Aug. 8, Ohioans voted on and fiercely rejected State Issue 1, a proposal by the Republican-controlled Legislature that would have required 60% of voters to approve future initiatives instead of a simple majority. The measure also would have mandated that signatures are gathered in all 88 counties, doubling the current requirement of 44.

Leading up to the special election, Ohio Republicans repeatedly denied that Issue 1 was correlated to November’s abortion access vote, instead claiming it was drafted to “curb out-of-state special interests,” despite reports that nearly all of the measures’ funding comes from external donors like billionaire Richard Uihlein — with only 14% of the total funding coming from Ohioans. After the Ohio government spent an estimated $20 million on unprecedented procedural actions to force an August election, which is notorious for low voter turnout, over three million ballots were cast, irrefutably demonstrating Ohioans’ commitment to preserving direct democracy.

Over a century ago, ballot measures originated from citizens’ desire to increase participation and check politicians, out of concerns that wealthy interests had captured the government and it was no longer representative of the people. The first states to create an initiative process were Nebraska, South Dakota and Utah and the process continues to exist in half of the country for voters to make gains on hot button issues like Medicare expansion and reproductive justice.

Ohioans sent a clear message to elected officials that blatant attempts to consolidate power and thwart the will of the people is not good politics.

Recently polarizing years have made ballot initiatives a tool to bypass state legislatures and codify historic policies such as same-sex marriage and minimum wage. As progressive policy wins accumulated during the 2010s, Republican efforts to restrict the ballot measure process witnessed a more dramatic escalation than any prior Democratic efforts, particularly in Republican held trifectas. 

It was only after left-leaning groups began utilizing ballot measures to successfully engage voters across party lines in heavily gerrymandered districts that we saw a newly galvanized Republican Party that prioritized eroding the ballot initiative process they now viewed as a threat. The reality is that our communities are less polarized than our state capitals. 

Conservatives recognize ballot initiatives’ undeniable capacity to advance policies that appeal across party lines and are sounding the alarm for their own communities to weaponize the ballot initiative process to advance their party’s agenda. Supermajority thresholds like the one proposed in Ohio are a popular tactic to undermine direct democracy and have also been used in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida and Missouri

This year, Florida Republicans even tried to increase their current supermajority threshold to a minority rule of 67%. Numerous anti-democratic hurdles extend across Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio and Wisconsin, where legislators either want to increase threshold, county, congressional district or signature requirements. Some states, like Florida and North Dakota, have previously or are actively considering legislation to require ballot measures to pass twice in order to become law, and Mississippi’s Supreme Court outright struck down the entire initiative process on a technicality.

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As of last month, there have been 164 total bills introduced in 37 states that would challenge the integrity of the ballot initiative process — 76 of which would make the initiative process more difficult for proponents to use. But in many cases, like Ohio, the will of the people has persevered. In June 2022, South Dakotans rejected another supermajority threshold proposal and last fall Arizona voters rejected a measure that would have allowed lawmakers to amend or repeal initiatives passed by voters. This May, the Missouri Legislature attempted to raise the bar to amend the state constitution from a simple majority to 57% and also failed. 

Republicans played an incredibly risky hand when they attempted to manipulate the ballot initiative process in order to prevent citizens from exercising freedom to decide on the issues that matter most to them. This has already been a terrible year for Republicans in special elections and ballot initiatives amplify electoral unpredictability for incumbent politicians. Issue 1’s failure has inadvertently connected the battle for reproductive justice with ballot manipulation tactics in the public eye, resulting in a loss for Republicans that will permeate much deeper than Ohio’s local polls.

For decades, a lack of political competition has incentivized Republican politicians to appeal to extremist ideologies and nurture entrenched partisan interest. Had it passed, Issue 1 would have dramatically increased campaign costs, transforming initiatives from a tool to enact meaningful change into a process exclusively-accessible to deep-pocketed special interests — ironically, the group Ohio Republicans proclaimed to curb. Earlier this month, Ohioans sent a clear message to elected officials that blatant attempts to consolidate power and thwart the will of the people is not good politics.

Attacks on ballot initiatives fit into a broader campaign to restrict voting access and undermine majority rule in the interest of protecting increasingly extreme minority interests. The result of these calculated interferences extend beyond Ohio and impair viable solutions to important issues — like environmental protections to criminal justice reform to nonpartisan redistricting commissions — by convoluting ballot requirements until they’re nearly impossible to complete. 

The cumulative impact of these efforts risks turning ballot initiatives into a resource that will only be accessible for monied special interests, effectively defeating its intended purpose of being a tool for unchecked legislative power.

Sarah Walker is the policy and legal advocacy director for the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC).