Much to the GOP’s Chagrin, Majority Still Rules in Ohio

Light pink background with image of a woman standing at a podium that reads "No on Issue 1" and holding her first up. A crowd stands behind her with their fists up, too.

Last week, Ohioans overwhelmingly rejected Issue 1, a ballot measure that would have gutted a century-old right to majority rule for direct democracy. Specifically, Issue 1 would have jacked up the win threshold from a simple 50% majority to a 60% supermajority and placed prohibitively difficult to achieve signature gathering benchmarks that would’ve made it essentially impossible for grassroots efforts to succeed. Ohio Republicans assumed their illegal grips on political power would translate to an easy win for their latest attempt to undermine our democracy, but we all know what happens when you assume. And, just in case they didn’t, that 14-point electoral loss was a helluva way to find out.

In the aftermath of such a stinging loss — one of the worst I’ve seen them suffer in the nearly twenty years I’ve worked in Ohio politics — Republicans seem to be a bit blindsided. But had they challenged any of the various assumptions they made in the nearly nine months that elapsed between the initial unveiling of their proposal to the election last Tuesday, perhaps we could’ve avoided wasting $20 million in taxpayer money on an election where the final result merely maintained a century-old status quo.

The first assumption Republicans made last November when they unveiled their proposal to make it harder to amend our state constitution was that legislative Republicans would quickly line up behind the idea and refer it to the ballot in short order. To be fair, this is usually a good assumption for them to make particularly when the policy at hand is one that would undermine the power of the people in favor of further emboldening their own power. After all, banding together to dismantle our democracy is the modus operandi for Ohio Republicans. 

But in the case of what would become Issue 1, Republicans couldn’t manage to caucus enough of their members together to support the measure before the end of the lame duck legislative session at the end of last year. And it would take another two tries — and support from Ohio Right to Life, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and pro-gun groups — at the beginning of this year to finally get enough House Republicans to vote in favor of the idea.

That’s right, despite occupying nearly 70% of our legislative seats thanks to the maps they illegally gerrymandered for themselves, Republicans had to try three separate times before getting just two more votes than they needed in the House to push through the Issue 1 legislation. Honestly, that should’ve been their first big, waving red flag, but they pushed on.

Their next assumption was that the timing of the election — in the middle of the summer — would work out in their favor because, well, no one would show up to vote. Or at least so they thought! 

Now, to be fair, Ohioans are really not used to voting in August, particularly in statewide elections. In fact, the last time Ohio hosted a statewide election in August was 97 years ago in 1926. And when we held a delayed election last August for our rigged state legislative districts, voter turnout was a measly 8%. To add to this, even Frank LaRose, Ohio’s chief elections officer — whose day job is to do things like increase voter turnout but who instead turned his office into a bully pulpit for the “Yes on 1” campaign — said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if our turnout was in the single digits, on par with last summer.

Ohio Republicans assumed we wouldn’t be paying attention to their brazen power grab with Issue 1. But, unfortunately for them, we traded in summer pool days for days at the polls and turned out at rates five times higher than we did last year. 

In the aftermath of the loss, Ohio Senate President and gerrymanderer-in-chief Matt Huffman (R) claimed that the reason the Yes side lost was because they just didn’t have enough time to run their campaign. I could maybe buy this sorry excuse for an explanation if Huffman weren’t a leader of the party who controls both legislative chambers where they chose the election date for Issue 1 to appear before voters. And, not to pile on here, but the No campaign publicly launched about 90 seconds after the Issue 1 legislation passed the House and Senate and still managed to pull off a massive electoral win in the exact same timeframe, so, what’s Republicans’ excuse?

One final assumption Republicans made about Issue 1 is that democracy is a partisan issue and that their base would show up to vote Yes. What is absolutely clear is that voters from Toledo to Cincinnati and from Portsmouth to Ashtabula — whether they live in big cities, suburbs or rural communities, or identify as Democrats, Republicans, independents and everything in between — came together to defeat Issue 1. What did not happen was a partisan divide about whether or not Ohioans are willing to voluntarily give up our own political power. 

In fact, there isn’t a single county where the Yes vote performed better than former President Donald Trump, a candidate who won Ohio by eight points twice. To dig into the numbers a little more, there are 15 counties in Ohio where Trump won and the Yes vote on Issue 1 failed. The biggest swing came from Lake County where Trump won by 14 points in 2020, yet the Yes vote lost by 18 points — a 34-point swing. 

I would also argue that this election and the defeat of Issue 1 underscores an important lesson for Democrats, too; after all, the No vote outperformed President Joe Biden’s 2020 numbers by almost 20 points in each of Ohio’s biggest and most Democratic counties: Franklin, Cuyahoga and Hamilton. Fighting for our democracy, it turns out, is a winning issue.

Ohioans support a people-powered democracy and it shows. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise to even the Republicans since our redistricting reforms designed to curb partisan gerrymandering won in 2015 and 2018 with 71% and 75% of the vote, respectively. When given the chance, Ohio voters aren’t new to using our votes to overwhelmingly defend the power of the people.

To many Ohio Republicans, the defeat of Issue 1 has nothing to do with the substance of the issue itself and the resounding Issue 1 loss is everyone else’s fault but their own. And unfortunately, that means there’s no way they’re giving up their long-term war on democracy anytime soon. 

Huffman himself suggested on election night that he’ll come back with a different version of Issue 1 at a later date. There’s still the remnants of the 2021 redistricting cycle to get through, though now with a newly conservative state Supreme Court that will undoubtedly rubber stamp the most rigged maps Republicans want to advance. And they’re already in full attack mode against ballot campaigns to enshrine policies Ohioans overwhelmingly support, but that we can’t enact thanks to their gerrymandering. 

Republicans made a calculated decision to wage an attack on the power of our votes, fully anticipating that we Ohioans would support a ballot measure that would kneecap us at the ballot. It’s honestly hard to imagine why you’d assume that any voter would willingly give up their own power to instead hand it over to politicians. But that’s the arrogance of Ohio Republicans for you — arrogance which has seemingly caught up to them, at least for now.

For one of the most gerrymandered, purged and suppressed states in the country, the defeat of Issue 1 was a victory as sweet as it was essential; had Issue 1 passed our path to direct democracy, the ability to have any real say in our political future would have effectively been dead. But now we can move forward in our collective fight for a more representative democracy in Ohio, empowered by all that we can accomplish when we come together to defend the power of the people. In the immediate future, Ohio’s next big fights will be to codify abortion rights this November and to win an independent redistricting commission next fall —both issues essential to a thriving democracy.

And, while I’m still floating from this win, let me finish by saying to all of those who’ve counted us out: come see about Ohio.

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.