Expanding their war on democracy, Ohio Republicans target citizen ballot initiatives for elimination
Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine speaks at an election night watch party at Republican Party headquarters, Nov. 8, 2022, in Columbus, Ohio. | Jay LaPrete / AP

COLUMBUS, Ohio—A rapidly growing and diverse statewide coalition of labor, voting rights, reproductive rights, religious, and community organizations has, for the moment, blocked Ohio Republicans’ attempts to severely weaken voters’ ability to pass citizen-initiated ballot referendums and strip the State Board of Education of its authority. Public pressure has divided Republicans, who don’t have the votes to pass the measures.

The coalition of 170 grassroots groups held a “Rally for Our Democracy” at the statehouse on Dec. 13 in Columbus to block the anti-democratic measures and other voter suppression laws GOP lawmakers are advancing in the lame-duck session.

“I was concerned because it would give power to only 40% of Ohioans to block a creative ballot initiative supported by the vast majority,” said Rev. Jack Sullivan Jr., Director of the Ohio Council of Churches. “That’s just not fair.”

In the wake of the voter rejection of GOP/MAGA extremism in the 2022 midterms, the Republican Party, rather than making a course correction, is doubling down on its extremism. In so-called “red states,” the GOP continues its autocratic power grab to consolidate one-party, minority rule, creating what former Ohio Democratic Party chair David Pepper calls “laboratories of autocracy.”

For decades, the GOP and right-wing extremists have focused on capturing power in statehouses. Republicans then ride a four-headed anti-democratic monster to inoculate themselves from public accountability and majority opinion and to self-perpetuate their rule: voter suppression, extreme partisan gerrymandering, pushing the “independent state legislature” doctrine before the U.S. Supreme Court, and restricting or eliminating citizen-initiated ballot measures.

Ohio Republicans now hold every statewide office, supermajorities in the state legislature, and a majority on the Ohio Supreme Court. With its entrenched power, the Ohio GOP has become one of the country’s most extreme, corrupt, and lawless state parties. Ohio Republicans now want to block any remaining challenge to their authority and majority opposition to their policies.

The Ohio GOP legislature passed HB 458, the strictest photo ID law in the nation, which could disenfranchise thousands of voters. They are advancing HB 294, which moves the deadline for the Board of Elections to receive absentee ballots to Election Day and reduces the number of ballot drop boxes. Pro-democracy groups are demanding Republican Gov. Mike DeWine veto them.

The GOP legislature is rushing the measures through without public discussion behind a manufactured hysteria over “voter fraud” and claims the ballot restriction measure will thwart outside interests from exploiting the amendment process, despite not a shred of evidence of either.

To the GOP’s chagrin, Ohio voters elected a Democratic majority to the state Board of Education in November. Under the GOP majority, Ohio’s public education national ranking fell, and voters became fed-up with phony anti-CRT attacks, physical threats against teachers, and a new law to arm them.

To undo the victory, the GOP tried ramrodding legislation to strip the Board of its authority and hand it to DeWine. The GOP fears its goal of privatizing public education, including giving a private school voucher to every student, will be thwarted.

Meanwhile, in a “historic abuse of power,” the GOP introduced House Joint Resolution 6 (HJR6) to limit citizen-initiated ballots, a 100-year-old right to direct democracy. The measure raises the threshold for passage of legislative and constitutional amendments from a simple majority to 60% of voters. The GOP wants the measure on the May 2 primary election ballot, when fewer voters turn out, and it only needs a simple majority to pass.

“Making it harder for citizen-led initiatives to pass is the latest attempt to silence Ohioans,” said Jen Miller, head of the Ohio League of Women Voters.

The growing pro-democracy coalition says the GOP overreached, much like in 2011 when it passed SB-5, stripping public sector workers of collective bargaining rights. Voters resoundingly supported a citizen-initiated ballot measure to overturn the law.

“Ohioans have seen other attempts to strip us of our rights, such as SB5 and the attack on collective bargaining, and we will rise up as we are called to do to defeat this assault on our constitutional rights,” declared Tim Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO.

Efforts to restrict or eliminate citizen-initiated ballots, including in Ohio, are being coordinated nationwide. A key advisor on HJR6 is the Opportunity Solutions Project, an organization connected to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the State Policy Network, the litigation arm of ALEC. ALEC is behind the cookie-cutter voter suppression, extreme gerrymandering, and anti-CRT bills passed by GOP-dominated state legislatures.

The GOP and the extreme right also want to limit or eliminate citizen-initiated ballots legislatively. The GOP introduced over 144 bills in 2021 alone, and GOP governors signed 19 into law in nine GOP-dominated states, including Florida, Idaho, and South Dakota. The GOP is also legislatively undoing amendments passed by voters, like the referendum to restore voting rights to returning citizens in Florida. Still another way is with judicial rulings by GOP-dominated courts.

Citizen-initiated amendments were introduced in the late 19th century by the People’s Party (PP), a multiracial coalition of farmers and workers. The PP reflected a mass rebellion against industrial monopolization and the autocratic and corrupt rule of “Robber Barons” over state legislatures. The practice expanded during the Progressive Era in the early 20th century. However, voters have won the right to direct democracy in only 26 states.

In 1912, delegates to an Ohio state constitutional convention voted to expand Ohio’s Bill of Rights and sent the amendments to voters for approval. The amendments included citizens-initiated ballots, the establishment of a minimum wage, a mandatory workers’ compensation system, regulating factory conditions, establishing an eight-hour day for public workers, municipal home rule, and direct primary elections.

Citizen-initiated referendums are increasingly popular where GOP one-party rule has blocked legislation supported by popular majorities. Ballot measures that lead to economic redistribution have passed 85% of the time in Republican-dominated states, and initiatives that redistribute wealth and resources to working-class people have a 75% success rate, according to the report “Majority Rules.”

Voters across the country have adopted measures over the past decade to raise the minimum wage, enshrine reproductive rights and worker rights, expand Medicaid, and legalize marijuana. In the 2022 midterm elections, voters enshrined abortion rights in Michigan, California, and Vermont. They defeated attempts to strip reproductive rights in Kansas, Kentucky, and Montana. In Nebraska and Washington, D.C., voters raised minimum wages. Arizona voters limited medical debt interest rates. South Dakotans expanded access to Medicaid. Voters in Alabama, Tennessee, Oregon, and Vermont abolished slavery in prisons.

In 2006, Ohio voters passed increases to the state minimum wage, and twice, in 2015 and 2018, passed amendments to create a fair legislative and congressional redistricting process. But the Ohio GOP ignored the will of voters and four state supreme court rulings to push through illegally gerrymandered maps.

Now reproductive rights groups have begun organizing to place a referendum on the November 2023 ballot to amend the Ohio constitution enshrining reproductive rights, supported by 59% of Ohioans in a recent poll.

Millions of people are chaffing under GOP autocratic rule. They have had enough and are determined to bring about change. The battle to liberate Ohio and other “red states” has only begun.


John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, where he attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs. He currently lives in Chicago.