Commentary

Politicking the ballot: How gerrymandering controls which issues go to voters

May 19, 2022 3:20 am

A voter at the ballot maker machine during the Ohio primary election, May 3, 2022, at the Noor Islamic Cultural Center, Dublin, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for the Ohio Capital Journal.)

An old game in politics revolves around putting certain issues on the ballot to energize certain voters to the polls during key elections.

This isn’t special to any particular political party; it’s been used by Democrats and Republicans alike in various states around the country for many decades.

Perhaps the most infamous iteration of it came in 2004, when same-sex marriage bans were put on the ballot in 11 states in a bid to divide the electorate and juice the reelection campaign of then-President George W. Bush.

It worked. All 11 bans were passed, including in Ohio, and Bush rolled into a second term (the only national popular vote for the presidency Republicans have won since 1992).

The inverse of this is keeping other issues off the ballot so certain voters who would support those issues don’t have them as a reason to show up.

We are currently seeing both dynamics play out in Ohio.

Republicans have successfully blocked a measure legalizing recreational weed from being considered by voters in November, and they are pushing for a “law and order” cash bail proposal as well as a “stop non-citizens from voting” ballot proposal to go to voters instead.

Neither are actual pressing issues.

Non-citizens are already barred by state and federal law from voting, and the only Ohio city that has proposed allowing them to vote in local elections — liberal Yellow Springs in Western Ohio — has put a hold on that after being legally threatened by the Ohio Secretary of State.

Meanwhile, the Cleveland.com Editorial Board has called the cash bail proposal “a confused mass of hot air sitting atop a mound of inaccurate assertions that public safety can’t be considered in setting bail.

“Safety can be considered — if the decision is that someone is too dangerous to be let out and must be held in jail prior to trial. That decision in turn triggers a pretrial detention hearing so the suspect and his or her attorney can make their case for bail, before being held without it.”

So both are obvious political incitements using fallacious slipper slope boogeymen.

Why put The Fear in Ohio voters about non-citizens voting and dangerous accused criminals not being held in pre-trial detention, if neither are actual issues of real concern?

Ohio’s November election features a key U.S. Senate race, three critical Ohio Supreme Court races (including for chief justice), and every statewide administrative office including governor, attorney general, secretary of state, auditor, and treasurer.

Ohio’s governor, secretary of state, and auditor all sit on the Ohio Redistricting Commission, and outgoing Republican Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor has ruled repeatedly as part of a bipartisan court majority against Ohio Republicans’ unconstitutional, partisan gerrymandered Statehouse and U.S. Congressional district maps. O’Connor is barred by age from seeking reelection.

If Republicans successfully force Ohio voters to participate in elections under unconstitutionally gerrymandered Statehouse maps this November, one can assume their hope is to win reelection for the statewide administrative offices on the redistricting commission and a favorable Ohio Supreme Court majority in November so that a new partisan majority on the court may enshrine their bipartisanly-declared unconstitutional maps as legitimate in 2023. Then they can gerrymander more to keep their unearned supermajority throat-hold on Ohio legislative political power.

They’ll take any advantage they can manufacture, including fear-mongering over non-issues to energize the voters they’ve manipulated, and putting that fear-mongering on the ballot itself.

But how are Ohio Republicans so easily able to control which issues go to voters?

Gerrymandering.

In order to place a possible Ohio Constitutional amendment before voters, lawmakers need supermajority approval in the legislature.

Ohio is a 54% to 46% Republican-to-Democratic state according to averages of statewide election results. But the Ohio GOP controls a 76% supermajority share of the Ohio Senate (25 of 33 seats) and a 65% supermajority share of the Ohio House (64 of 99 seats).

Under fair district maps, they would have to actually earn supermajorities each election cycle, or, failing that, engage in compromise to win enough legislative votes to pass the issue for ballot consideration.

Under the gerrymandered maps they’ve been enjoying, and are determined to continue to enjoy, that’s not a concern.

Their undue supermajorities are delivered to them via gerrymandering, and they therefore retain undue control over which issues Ohio voters get to see.

Ohio citizens can, at great expense and effort, gather enough signatures to force the issue to the ballot regardless of the legislature. (The typical game legislators have played when they feel under such threat is to hijack the citizen ballot initiative in the legislature, water it down and change it to their liking, and then pass their version of the ballot proposal for voters to consider instead.)

Meanwhile, the legislature enjoys an easy-street, gerrymandered supermajority path to putting whatever they like on the ballot whenever they like.

Politicking the ballot is an old tactic in driving turnout for elections. Doing it by scaring voters over non-issues is disingenuous and gross.

Using undue gerrymandered supermajorities to wield outsized power over which ballot issues Ohio voters are allowed to consider, and which they aren’t, is yet another stark example of how despicable gerrymandering is, and how it poisons everything.

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David DeWitt
David DeWitt

OCJ Editor-in-Chief David DeWitt has more than 15 years experience covering Ohio government, politics and policy, including education, health care, crime and courts, poverty, state and local government, business, labor, energy, environment, and social issues. He has worked for the National Journal, The New York Observer, The Athens NEWS, and Plunderbund.com. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and is a board member of the E.W. Scripps Society of Alumni and Friends. He can be found on Twitter @DC_DeWitt.

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