In the 220 years that elapsed since Ohio became a state, the General Assembly has never scheduled a special election for the sole purpose of considering a legislatively initiated constitutional amendment. That streak is about to come to an end. As I write this week’s column, the state’s 88 county boards of election, are preparing to do exactly that. This extraordinary situation provides context for a Civics lesson that I hope will provide voters with the information they need to make an informed decision when—and if-they cast a ballot on August 8.
I say “if” because turnout for August specials is incredibly low. For example, only eight percent of the electorate participated in last year’s primaries for seats in the state house and senate. In fact, turnout has been so abysmal that the very same legislators who just scheduled the upcoming election actually voted to do away with them just a few months ago. I’ll have more to say about that in a bit.
For now, back to the Civics lesson. Let’s start with the basics: our form of government. While commonly referred to as democracies, the United States, Ohio, and the other 49 states are democratic republics in which the people vote for the representatives who do the actual governing. The Founding Fathers embraced this model because they believed it was the most effective and efficient way to manage the nation’s affairs.
The principle of majority rule is the engine that drives democratic republics. According to famed mathematician Kenneth May, majority rule is the only “fair” way to conduct elections because it does not allow some votes to count more than others and unlike super majority rules, it does not allow the status quo to prevail even though it received fewer votes.
Is the system perfect? Of course not. When our elected representatives abandon or ignore the will and wishes of their constituents due to corruption, gerrymandering, or the influence of big money, the public justifiably loses faith in government. That is exactly the situation that existed in Ohio at the beginning of the 20th Century. Outraged by a state government that was being sold to the highest bidders, a group of reformers and progressives convinced the voters to convene a Constitutional Convention in 1912.
During weeks of deliberations delegates wrote and voters later approved a proposal that serves as the antidote to unresponsive government: Article 2, Section 1 of the Ohio Constitution which enables citizens to place an amendment directly before voters on a statewide ballot who must approve it by a simple majority vote.
The citizen-initiated amendment process is, as it should be, complicated and laborious. Over the past 111 years, 71 proposals have been placed before the voters, 19 have been approved. Many have improved our quality of life including imposing a10-mill limit on unvoted property taxes, home rule authority for cities and counties, banning smoking in public places, and raising the state’s minimum wage and indexing it to inflation. By any measure, the process has benefited Ohioans.
Which brings us back to the impending unprecedented August election. For a reason I will not address here, the Republican majority in the General Assembly is placing an amendment that will fundamentally change the rules that govern the initiative process on the ballot in August. Their proposal will raise the threshold for approving initiated amendments from the century-old 50% plus one standard to a 60% supermajority. If passed it will erase the principle that is at the very heart of our system of government and replace it with minority rule.
And, in a final bit of irony, they will only need to secure 50% plus one vote to do it in election they hope most Ohioans won’t notice.
Constitutional scholar and former Ohio House members Mike Curtin believes trashing Ohio’s 220-year-old tradition of respecting voters is a historic and contemptuous act of bad faith. Fortunately, the voters, thanks to the 1912 Constitutional Convention, will have the final say.