Ohio’s New Motto: Give Us The Ballot

Dark blue background with people protesting faded into the background and three images of hands holding up a ballot measure and the map of Ohio and in the middle holding up a fist.

It will be hard to top the absolute banner year for democracy Ohio had last year, but we’re keeping our eyes on the prize in 2024 to wrestle even more power back into the hands of the people where it belongs.

While most folks will understandably center their attention for this year’s election cycle on top-of-the-ticket races, mine will be fixated on two potential constitutional ballot measures aimed at tilting the scales of power away from politicians in Ohio. Those two proposed measures are one to create a citizen-led, independent redistricting commission — the third redistricting ballot measure that Ohio voters would decide on in a decade — and the other an Ohio voters’ bill of rights that would enshrine our right to vote in the state constitution and expand access to our democracy.

To me, these reforms are two sides of the same coin — one is about who we can elect and the other is about whether we can vote. Both are necessary for Ohio’s voters, particularly given that Republicans in my state have spent the last decade and a half undermining the power of our votes and gerrymandering our state and congressional maps to hell. 

And while much attention has already rightfully been paid to the need for redistricting reform, I want to dig a little deeper into why voting rights reform is also so essential for our state.

Why is this amendment so necessary?

Ohio is a state too often overlooked in conversations about voter suppression and attacks on the power of our vote despite the fact that we are home to some of the worst of each of those tactics. No matter the tactic to block people from exercising their most fundamental American right, Ohio’s got it. Strict voter ID rules? We’ve got the strictest. Cuts to early voting? You bet. Voter purges? Ohio’s never met one it doesn’t like. Systemic suppression? Top to bottom.

I want to be clear that Ohio is not so different from our midwestern neighbors like Michigan or Minnesota that the electoral results and, more importantly, civic engagement levels seen there are impossible here. Rampant voter suppression efforts and gerrymandering, though, lead to election outcomes and lower civic engagement rates that belie the real political nature of our state.

In just the last five years, Republican secretaries of state have purged more than 700,000 voters from the rolls, unjustly making our most fundamental American right a use it or lose it one. The most recent purge came in October of last year after the voter registration deadline had passed and early voting had begun for the November election. Again, Ohio Republicans have really never met a purge they didn’t like. They even went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court to protect their aggressive “supplemental” style of purges that outpaces most other states in the country.

And rather than working on bringing our election system into the 21st century to make it more accessible to all of us, like so many of our other midwestern neighbors have done especially in recent years, Ohio voters are tripped up by unnecessary, outdated procedures that create a complicated, if not entirely prohibitive, path to the ballot box.

To fight against these efforts, for nearly a decade, Black civil rights leaders, including the Ohio chapter of the NAACP, the Ohio Unity Coalition (the state chapter of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation), the A. Philip Randolph Institute and the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, have worked to qualify a constitutional amendment for the ballot that would bring much-needed change to how we run elections in Ohio. 

Their first try was in 2014 with an amendment carrying the same name as the current one — the Ohio Voters Bill of Rights — and another came in 2020. Both were hobbled by rampant opposition from especially in-state Republicans, but also (in the case of the 2020 effort) by the early days of the pandemic, which stymied signature collection efforts.

In the meantime, voter suppression efforts haven’t slowed; if anything they’ve become even more urgent. The worst of those tactics came in the form of a sweeping anti-voter bill, House Bill 458, that was enacted at the start of 2023 and includes the country’s strictest voter ID law and various other provisions that further limit Ohioans’ access to the ballot box. And, of course, there’s always our illegally gerrymandered maps that deny us the full power of our votes. 

The time has come again for these same organizations to lead the righteous fight to protect our most precious freedom to vote.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said back in 1957, “The hour is late. The clock of destiny is ticking out. We must act now, before it is too late.” It’s time to modernize our election system and to bring more Ohio voters into the fold by protecting the full power of their votes. And the current version of the Ohio Voters Bill of Rights offers us an important opportunity to do just that.

So what would the amendment do?

It eases the current photo ID rules, ensures that only eligible citizens can vote, protects military and overseas voters’ ability to have their votes counted and makes sure all Ohioans can vote when, how and wherever they want. It also provides the opportunity to people to vote even if they don’t have access to the amendment’s expanded list of photo IDs, bringing Ohio in line with the vast majority of states in this country that don’t exclusively require a photo ID to vote.

It empowers local boards of election to institute policies that make the most sense for their communities, like setting up more drop boxes across their counties and expanding the number of early vote centers so voting is more convenient and accessible. Rather than the current system where each county in Ohio may have just one early vote center, the amendment would allow counties to meet their voters where they are to ensure the path to the ballot box is actually accessible to everyone. If states like Georgia, North Carolina and Texas can provide dozens of early vote locations, surely Ohio can, too.

Give us the ballot and put the people of my Ohio back into the driver’s seat of our democracy.

And it makes sure our elections work for all of us by requiring prepaid postage on all election mail, protecting no-excuse absentee voting, streamlining the voter registration and updating process (through automatic and same-day registration systems) and requires the state to fund all the necessary policies to make this amendment a reality. 

The amendment is a sweeping reimagining of what might be possible in this heart-shaped state of mine if our state government bent over backwards to clear the path to democracy rather than working in overdrive to ensure certain voters can’t access the voting booth. 

Ohio voters need redistricting and voting reform to restore people’s power.

To my mind, there is no other fight worth waging in Ohio than the one to enshrine the full power of our votes into the state constitution. The right to vote, after all, is our most fundamental because it is preservative of all other rights we enjoy. Without our votes, we have nothing. Republicans in this state certainly understand that; it’s why they work so damned hard to attack it and to kneecap our voices and our votes at every opportunity they get.

Now, to be clear, I am equally as passionate about ensuring that the redistricting reform qualifies for this year’s ballot and that it passes — clearing the path for actually fair maps drawn without politicians, Democratic or Republican, tipping the scales in their favor rather than in favor of the people they’re sworn to represent. 

But the reality is that redistricting reform will only take us so far; it alone is not enough to shift long-term power in this state. After all, what good are fair maps if all eligible Ohioans can’t reach the ballot box to vote under them? Ohio needs both redistricting reform and a massive overhaul to our voting rights and election system in this state to really move the needle. We need the ability to both dictate our political futures under maps that reflect our communities and also to harness the full power of our votes to steer our state forward.

In 2023, Ohioans overwhelmingly stood up for our democracy and for the power of the people. In 2024, we’re going to carry that trend forward by advancing two essential ballot measures unified by a single motto: give us the ballot. 

Give us the ballot and we will elect leaders who reflect our values under maps that meet the needs of our communities. Give us the ballot and we will chart a course for our beloved Ohio that aligns with the people’s vision, not that of out-of-touch extremist politicians. Give us the ballot and put the people of my Ohio back into the driver’s seat of our democracy.

For so many reasons this year, democracy is again on the ballot in Ohio. If we can manage it, these two essential reforms will qualify for the November election and Ohioans will have a direct opportunity to weigh in on the full range of our voting power. I look forward to working with incredible leaders from across the state to make that a reality.

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.