Ohioans need democracy as Issue 1 vote approaches

August 2, 2023 3:20 am
A voter shows identification to an election judge during primary voting on May 3, 2022 in Lordstown, Ohio. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

A voter shows identification to an election judge during primary voting on May 3, 2022 in Lordstown, Ohio. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

In 2007, my homeland, Kenya, devolved into violence.

Politicians exploited contested election results, dividing people along ethnic lines and plunging the country into chaos. Three years later, the people of Kenya organized to ensure this would never happen again. The outcome: a new, more modern, more inclusive constitution.

Growing up in Ohio since then, I came to think deeply about how institutions work — and what tools citizens have to hold their governments accountable. This, in part, led me to study history at Ohio State University and pursue a master’s in political science at Kent State University, which I’ll begin this fall.

Now, our very own politicians are trying to water down the power of our votes. When I line up to vote, I am of the belief that my vote counts just as much as those of the people lined up next to me. Throughout our country’s history, these beliefs are political cornerstones: “one person, one vote,” and majority rule. Like Kenyans, it’s our turn to fight to uphold our democracy on August 8.

If passed, Issue 1 would increase the threshold needed to pass ballot initiatives to 60%. This means that a minority of Ohioans would hold a veto on what the majority would want. Issue 1 would also turn signature gathering into a Herculean task, requiring signatures from 5% of voters in all 88 counties. Additionally, it removes the good-faith, 10-day “cure period” where contested signatures could be fixed.

This contradicts the spirit of direct democracy practiced in Ohio for over 110 years. In 1912, Ohioans held a constitutional convention in Columbus to modernize and strengthen our state. Teddy Roosevelt, present in Columbus at the time, passionately supported the citizen-led initiative process established by Ohioans at the convention. He said, “In actual practice, it has been found in many states that legislative bodies do not respond to the popular will. Therefore, I believe the state should allow for direct popular action to address legislative shortcomings.”

The American founders also recognized the danger of a minority derailing the majority. This led them to abandon the Articles of Confederation and their restrictive supermajority requirements. As Alexander Hamilton put it in The Federalist Papers, No. 22, “What at first sight may seem a remedy, is, in reality, a poison. To give a minority a negative upon the majority…is, in its tendency, to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser.”

Supporters of Issue 1 claim it protects the constitution from corruption and out-of-state special interests. But Ohioans have successfully resisted such forces before. In 2015, we passed the Ohio Initiated Monopolies Amendment, limiting lobbyists and monopoly influence on our constitution. However, Issue 1 would do the opposite—all but guaranteeing that wealthy, well-connected individuals, or those same special interest groups, would be the only ones able to introduce and pass ballot measures.

These realities crystallized for me when I went to the Statehouse to give spoken testimony opposing HJR 1 and SJR 2, which ultimately became Issue 1. Only a handful of citizens were allowed to speak before the Republicans gaveled out the meeting and advanced the bill. It was a strange feeling. Even though we’d shown up and followed the protocols, legislators acted with impunity and silenced our voices.

Issue 1 is only one part of a broader agenda to diminish the voting power of Ohioans that the Ohio GOP has spent years advancing. In 2020, Secretary of State Frank LaRose implemented a restriction on dropboxes, allowing only one per county. This has created an unfair situation where a larger, more diverse county like Franklin, with over 800,000 registered voters, has the same number of dropboxes as smaller counties like Vinton, with less than 9,000 registered voters. As a result, areas like Columbus have experienced traffic jams and long wait times at the single dropbox available, disproportionately impacting voters who cannot afford such delays.

This past December, legislators also passed HB 458, a voter ID law. While the law’s stated intent is to secure our elections, it clearly functions as a means of suppression. Many Ohioans, including myself, will be able to use our driver’s license to satisfy the ID requirement. But what about students who live on campus, don’t drive, and only have a student ID? Or residents who have traditionally relied on utility bills for identification in order to cast a vote? The law turns our fundamental right to vote into a paperwork issue.

I’ve asked myself: Is Ohio a red state, or just a voter-suppressed state? As an OSU grad, I don’t compare Ohio to Michigan lightly. But with similar demographics and even 1.7 million more people, Ohio consistently records much lower voter turnout. While Michigan has taken steps to make voting easier and more engaging for its citizens, Ohio has moved in the opposite direction.

As Ohio voters, we’ve shown time and time again that we know how to think for ourselves and act in the best interest of our state. The 2022 midterms are a notable example of what it looks like when we actually do turn out and oppose blatant power grabs. With a huge participation rate, including a flood of young voters, we stopped a number of extremist politicians from coming into power around the country. We showed that it’s possible to show up and have our voices heard.

Now, to preserve this right, we must exercise our power to vote in August, just like Kenyans did for themselves in 2010 and just as our fellow Ohioans did in 1912.

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Wahinya Njau
Wahinya Njau

Wahinya Njau is an incoming master’s student in political science at Kent State. He earned his bachelor's in history from The Ohio State University in 2021. He is a member leader with the Ohio Student Association.