Ohio Republicans’ bill to roll back democracy sparks major resistance
Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens speaks at a press conference on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio, to lay out the Republican-dominated chamber's priorities for the state's new legislative session. | Samantha Hendrickson / AP

COLUMBUS, Ohio—The Ohio Statehouse looked last week like the beginning of a rerun of the massive 2011 uprising that took over the legislature, filling hearing rooms and overflow spaces and spilling across the outside lawns. What brought the crowds to the capital? Extremist legislation by Republican lawmakers.

This year’s GOP-sponsored legislation would continue the drive to turn the Buckeye State into what some analysts are calling a “laboratory of autocracy.” Republicans are rushing to restrict democratic rights because their extremist agenda is unpopular with Ohioans, particularly laws to outlaw abortion.

One GOP bill would allow a total takeover of the educational curriculum by extremist politicians by eliminating the independence of the state school board. Another effort would make it nearly impossible for voters to adopt constitutional amendments to challenge right-wing overreach on reproductive rights, voting rights, and redistricting.

The GOP autocrats also floated the idea of setting a quick August date for a special election to rush voters into adopting a constitutional amendment to restrict ballot initiatives. But they ran into a small self-sabotage problem: A couple of months prior, the Republican Party had already officially eliminated the “special elections” option, citing “state expenses.”

Republican Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens deep-sixed the scheme to call a special election in August to pass the constitutional amendment reform in the face of growing opposition. “We just voted to not have those anymore just a few months ago,” an embarrassed Stephens said. “The county election officials I’ve talked to are not interested in having it.”

Meanwhile, opposition to the GOP agenda has ballooned. Over 172 organizations representing labor, social justice, and religious organizations across the state comprise the “We Are Ohio” coalition. The quickly growing resistance has split the ranks of GOP legislators, and their disunity has begun to bog down the anti-democratic offensive.

The Republicans’ constitutional ballot initiative proposal, HR 1, raises the threshold for voters to pass amendments from 50%-plus-one to 60%. Conservatives are advancing the scheme to block efforts by reproductive rights organizations to amend the state constitution to repeal one of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the nation.

HR 1 has become the chief target for all the movements in Ohio seeking to protect and expand democracy.

The right-wing amendment would also double the number of counties from which petitioners would have to gather signatures of 5% of the electorate, considerably raise the signature requirement, outlaw signature collection except for by a small number of “electors,” and wipe out the “cure” provision of initiatives, which gives collectors the ability to finish collection if legislators eliminate more than the required number in their “review” of petitions.

Hearing rooms, typically sparsely populated by a few white guys in suits, were overflowing this time with people of various hues, wearing union jackets, “Fair/Decent Education” shirts, women’s rights T-shirts, etc., and they were not in a good mood.

Democratic legislative leaders predicted such a bill would be very unpopular with Ohio voters and go down to defeat. Republicans have tried to justify their anti-democratic attacks on the initiative process as an effort to prevent outside corporate money from influencing state elections. Former Democratic lawmaker Mike Curtin said the claim was nonsense.

“In my estimation, their arguments about the 60% thing needed to keep special interests from buying their way into the constitution is a complete straw man,” Curtin said. “It’s a falsehood.”

“We’ve been thru this movie before,” said Ron “Pup” Waldrup, Director of Ohio SOAR (Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees, USW). “If they want to rewind the clock to 2011, we had a great time, love a good fight, and we’ll be happy to invite our members to come to Columbus again!”

In 2011, hundreds of thousands flooded the Statehouse, taking over the entire area and forcing a referendum election that overwhelmingly defeated previous anti-labor GOP legislation attempting to wipe out the rights of workers who are injured or fall ill on the job.

Voters overwhelmingly defeated that GOP bill, with 57.6% turning out in opposition. The present Republican proposal would set the level required to pass an initiative at 60%, a politically convenient number for them, considering the past election result.

Extremist anti-women/anti-labor Rep. Scott Wiggam, R-Wooster, chaired the hearing last week. He appeared nervous, uncomfortable, and clearly in a place he didn’t want to be. He kept reaching for his gavel, calling for “Quiet!” and sparking laughter from the well-behaved crowd.

Rep. Rose Sweeney, D-Westlake, peppered Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, the uncomfortable chief sponsor of the legislation, with questions. “Why are you trying to present this reactionary bill as ‘moderate/unbiased’ when we ALL know it is nothing of the sort?” she asked while holding up a GOP memo that stated this bill would “leverage the ‘pro-life’ community” and “help side-line opponents.”

Catherine Turcer of Common Cause Ohio called HR 1 “an attack on our democracy.” She said, “For over 100 years we’ve functioned extremely well with referendums strengthening our democracy.” Turcer called the bill unnecessary and said, “It’s expensive, undemocratic, and undermines faith in our democratic system.”

Norm Wernet, president of the Ohio Alliance for Retired Americans, stated, “If they want a fight, we’ll leverage it up,” but he added, “we don’t like to get into fights we won’t win.”

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Bruce Bostick
Bruce Bostick

Bruce Bostick is a retired steelworker and leader in Ohio Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees.