Home / General / Laboratories of Democratic backsliding: Ohio edition

Laboratories of Democratic backsliding: Ohio edition

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For my election series I’ve been operating on the principle that all national elections demand coverage, but minor/regional/special/by-elections are included on an ad hoc basis, largely determined by whether I feel like it or not. The upcoming election in Ohio (August 8 is election day, early/absentee underway) deserves some discussion.

The story begins back in ancient times, aka last Winter. Republican legislators were looking to pass a bill to end the occasional practice of holding elections in August. As far as Republican plans go, this seemed like a pretty reasonable and sensible one: there are three other election dates annually, August has the lowest turnout, it’s difficult to staff, wastes money, etc. Scott and I have a half-baked unfinished draft of a paper somewhere considering the issue of the quantity of elections held from a democratic theory perspective; the arguments offered by Republicans for eliminating August elections overlap a fair amount with our own positions there. No reason anything on an August ballot couldn’t be resolved on a November/March/May ballot. The bill passed and was signed into law without much controversy.

Around the same time, Signature-gatherers were looking to put an initiative on the ballot to entrench abortion rights. Ohio is a referendum-friendly state for the Midwest, so this is a very real possibility. As the signature-gathering gained steam, and the evidence that voters are a lot more pro-choice in the post-Dobbs era continued to mount, Republicans got worried. The initiative is likely to make the November 2023 ballot, and is also pretty likely to pass. The scheme Republicans came up with to stop this: put an issue to the voters, amending the Ohio constitution to require a 60% threshold for initiatives. The problem, of course, is that the only way to get this into force in time to thwart the abortion initiative would be to hold an August election, which they had just outlawed.

There was much drama back in May over whether the necessary legislation would pass the House (the Senate and Governor were all for it) and at the last possible moment (90 days before the election was to be held) the House did indeed pass both the “oops never mind what we said six months ago, but just for this one time” bill and the bill to advance the issue to the ballot. While all former Republican governors and AGs have come out against it (including my colleague Bob Taft, who almost never inserts himself in political controversy), the party is united behind it. That this is an obvious pretext to prevent democratic majorities from entrenching reproductive freedom seems to be widely understood, although an unfortunate but perhaps predictable twist is that the “Yes” effort has seen some support from the business community, who are less interested in turning Ohio into a dangerous hellscape for pregnant women than they are in making it harder for minimum wage increases to pass.

As far as sinister Republican schemes to undermine democracy go, this one has the distinct advantage of being unlikely to succeed. The hope that they might sneak this through with a very low turnout, which often happens in August elections, looks lost based on early/absentee turnout so far. (Speaking for myself, I generally skip August elections when, as I usually am in summer, I’m out of town, but I applied for my absentee ballot at the earliest opportunity, sent it in earlier this week and have been checking the track my ballot page waiting for it to show up.) One early poll surprised and alarmed me by showing a 38-37 lead for Issue 1, but a better and more recent poll is more in line with my expectations. Optimism about elections in Ohio is a rare feeling for me, but I think it’s justified. In general, convincing voters to strip their own democratic power from themselves is a tough sell, particularly when the partisan rewards are indirect and uncertain. In states like Washington and California, where government by initiative has produced real problems and could provide some raw material for a backlash, Ohio’s initiative use has been moderate and largely popular.

So anyway, the first step in preserving the reproductive rights of Ohioans will take place in few weeks, the second, likely, in November. Both are very winnable. I doubt any of our Ohio readers need a nudge to vote in this election, but if you do, please consider this your nudge. Despite gerrymandered quasi-permanent Republican rule, we have a real path here.

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