America’s most noble achievements have come from expanding democracy, not ripping it away

March 30, 2023 4:30 am

A voter at a ballot maker machine. (Photo by Graham Stokes for the Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.)

Deploying profoundly simplistic and misleading arguments for attacking Ohio voters’ ability to amend our own state constitution, various Ohio Republican politicians have pointed to the U.S. Constitution’s requirements for passage of amendments.

This, they argue, justifies rolling back more than 110 years of popular democracy in Ohio to enshrine 41% minority rule over the reasonable majority of voters.

Ohio Senate Republicans and an insurgent faction of House Republicans are in a full-court press on their attempt to make it harder for voters to amend our Ohio Constitution by raising the threshold for passage from 50% to 60%.

Never mind that U.S. Constitutional amendments require support from two-thirds of lawmakers in each chamber of Congress and three-fourths of state legislatures, not voters.

Never mind the absurdity of anyone claiming “the founders” were of one mind on any issue, let alone the Constitution. The group referred to as “the founders” were extremely divided on almost everything. “Give me liberty or give me death” Patrick Henry famously even opposed the Constitution itself. Some founders fought for popular democracy; others thought of the popular majority as uneducated and capricious, and fought to limit democracy.

And never mind that there is an enormous difference between the U.S. Constitution and the constitutions of the various states, our “laboratories of democracy.”

The central issue here is that there are forces at work in Ohio right now, including among our most powerful politicians, attacking popular democracy and attempting to shackle Ohioans under the yoke of extremist minority rule. Their rule.

In this instance, they are transparently doing so in an attempt to preempt an abortion rights amendment planned for November as well as any further redistricting reform from voters that would put an end to flagrant, unconstitutional Republican gerrymandering.

Moreover, mere months after eliminating August elections in Ohio because they are expensive with low turnout (2022’s August election had 8% turnout: 638,000 voters out of nearly 8 million registered), the very same politicians are now advocating bringing back a $20 million August election in 2023 to try to take advantage of that low turnout.

This move gives the lie to any posturing they do about protecting voters or the Ohio Constitution. They are deviously gaming to attack Ohio voters and our ability to amend our constitution in the most calculated way possible.

They’ll even point to Ohio voters’ ability to initiate statutes as some kind of consolation, while knowing full well that voters would spend millions working to pass an initiated statute that the gerrymandered supermajority legislature could later override.

This amendment proposal is a clear-cut assault on democracy itself, and the stakes are so high and historic that it’s absolutely critical to call it exactly what it is. In the most fundamental and consequential way possible, it would strip voters of our full power at the ballot box with cascading repercussions decades upon decades into the future.

The fight over democracy in our Republic has been the primary animating element of progress and regression throughout American history, and is a fight that has been present in our politics since the start.

Over the centuries, America’s most noble and significant achievements have come, at great cost of life and limb, by expanding democratic representation in our government, not by ripping it away.

That’s what the Declaration of Independence did, replacing the feudal autocracy of European monarchy with a new American Republic.

That’s what significant sections of the Bill of Rights did, establishing a wide variety of unprecedented legal protections for the people and our political activity.

That’s what the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments collectively did, ending slavery, establishing due process and equal protection, and giving Black Americans the right to vote.

That’s what the 17th Amendment did, establishing popular election of U.S. Senators instead of appointment by state legislatures.

That’s what the 19th Amendment did, giving women the right to vote.

That’s what the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did, expanding equality, voter access, and voter protections.

And that’s what the Ohio Constitutional Convention and voters of 1912 did when they asserted ultimate majority voter authority over our state constitution.

In every one of these cases American civilization took enormous strides forward by expanding democracy, not contracting it.

Reading Teddy Roosevelt’s speech to the 1912 Ohio Constitutional Convention, which OCJ published today in full, it’s apparent that the Ohioans of the early 20th Century were facing many of the same issues involving public corruption, corporate money poisoning politics, and lawmakers wildly misrepresenting the people, that we are seeing in Ohio now with gerrymandering, racketeering, money laundering, and special interest political bribery.

And now many of the same gerrymandered Ohio politicians who have been silent about the rampant corruption and federal felony criminal convictions of the former speaker of the Ohio House and the former leader of the Ohio Republican Party, are telling voters we should give away our own power at the ballot box to protect ourselves from moneyed special interests and a gerrymandered Statehouse.

“We believe that unless representative government does absolutely represent the people, it is not representative government at all,” Roosevelt told the Ohio Convention. “We are engaged in one of the great battles of the age-long contest waged against privilege on behalf of the common welfare. We hold it a prime duty of the people to free our government from the control of money in politics.”

Teddy Roosevelt. Photo from the U.S. Library of Congress.

All constitutions, those of the states no less than that of the nation, are designed, and must be interpreted and administered, so as to fit human rights, he said.

“For this purpose we advocate, not as ends in themselves, but as weapons in the hands of the people, all governmental devices which will make the representatives of the people more easily and certainly responsible to the people’s will,” Roosevelt said. “I am emphatically a believer in constitutionalism, and because of this fact I no less emphatically protest against any theory that would make of the constitution a means of thwarting instead of securing the absolute right of the people to rule themselves and to provide for their social and industrial well-being.”

In these lines and many others, Roosevelt hits on the central theme of what democratic self-governance is supposed to achieve: the people’s interests being done through the mechanism of representative government.

And if elected officials are failing to represent the people’s interests, final authority must be vested in the people to protect our constitution and hold our elected representatives accountable.

As Roosevelt says, these are the people’s “weapons” in our Republic, and these lawmakers are now telling Ohioans to unilaterally disarm.

In many of the achievements mentioned above — through the relentless striving and spilt blood of the common people and a handful of principled, conscientious leaders — we’ve taken great strides toward a more democratic and equitable nation.

But America has always made progress despite a menacing weight threatening to pull it under water every high tide, making much of the country gasp to breathe free.

This is the weight of our collective primitive past manifesting a dark impulse in some to suppress and subjugate others — to deny others their free and dignified existence — in order that these certain bad actors may empower and enrich themselves, and impose their dogma on every one and everything they please.

In order to achieve this subjugation, those with these impulses would dismantle and destroy democracy itself in America.

Their personal extremist ideology holds more importance to them than their patriotic duty to American constitutionalism.

This is an authoritarian, anti-democratic impulse that has been with humankind since the beginning and has been fought against by generation after generation, and will continue to be fought against by each new generation long after every single one of us is gone.

This is our time now to tend the field before us and do our part.

Those not patriotically committed to the pillars of democracy upholding our American Republic will continue to relentlessly assault voters, the rule of law, and our constitution in any and every underhanded way imaginable.

Ohioans owe it to our past and our future to never relinquish in the unceasing fight for democracy.

The only safe course to follow in this great American democracy is to provide for making the popular judgment really effective. When this is done, then it is our duty to see that the people, having the full power, realize their heavy responsibility for exercising that power aright. But it is a false constitutionalism, a false statesmanship, to endeavor by the exercise of a perverted ingenuity to seem to give the people full power and at the same time to trick them out of it. Yet this is precisely what is done in every case where the State permits its representatives, whether on the bench or in the legislature or in executive office, to declare that it has not the power to right grave social wrongs, or that any of the officers created by the people, and rightfully the servants of the people, can set themselves up to be the masters of the people.

– Theodore Roosevelt to the 1912 Ohio Constitutional Convention



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David DeWitt
David DeWitt

OCJ Editor-in-Chief and Columnist David DeWitt has been covering government, politics, and policy in Ohio since 2007, 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 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