After Issue 1, Ohioans have a new opportunity to end GOP stranglehold
COLUMBUS, Ohio — MAY 10: Hundreds of protesters against SJR 2, and its companion HJR 1, fill the rotunda before the Ohio House session, May 10, 2023, at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.)
When the Ohio GOP came up with Issue 1 as a cheap ploy to thwart a constitutional amendment to enshrine the right to abortion and contraception in the Ohio state constitution, they thought this was a slam dunk. Assuming that the historic trends of low voter turnout for August elections would be the way to slide this past most Ohioans while they weren’t paying attention. After all, these same legislators passed a law to ban August elections in the state just last year.
The results are in. Issue 1 was soundly rejected by Ohio voters, with 56.6% voting against the measure. And now, the constitutional amendment on abortion will only require the normal majority vote to pass this November. This is enough reason for liberals and progressives (and people of conscience who are against corruption) to celebrate. But I think there’s actually more to this than the Republicans have bargained for and could really challenge their hyper-gerrymandered grip on power in our state. Not only did they lose this battle, they’ve also inadvertently helped build a newly engaged, networked, and organized base who, if properly leveraged, could help change the power dynamics in the state.
Voters have outperformed expectations
Lest we forget, the Ohio legislature and Gov. Mike DeWine passed and signed HB 458, a bill that made pretty substantial changes to voting in Ohio, reducing acceptable IDs to vote to only four options, while also restricting the number of early voting drop-box locations to one per county and shortening early voting days and the days to submit absentee ballots. While these provisions of the bill were much contested by voting rights groups, military families and other constituents, it was upheld by the conservative majority of the Ohio Supreme Court. The one provision of the bill that seemed to make sense was to ban August special elections unless a “political subdivision is under a fiscal emergency, or the taxing authority that is a school district is under a fiscal emergency.” This makes sense because the voter turnout for August elections in Ohio has been abysmally low.
So when the Ohio state Republicans created Issue 1 and placed it on the August ballot, they fully expected for this to be like all other August elections: low turnout, and if they only mobilized enough of their voters, they’d create a major blockade to abortion and contraception protections. But that’s not what happened.
According to Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose’s office, as of Aug. 4, over 578,000 Ohioans had already cast a ballot on Issue 1, far surpassing all predictions. By comparison, in the special election held in August 2022, the total number of voters was only 638,708, or a measly 8% of all registered voters. While it will be some days after Aug. 8 before we have a final tally, we are on pace to certainly outpace last year with no other races or issues on the ballot.
Normally Ohio is pretty politically polarized between urban and rural, and that has been something the Ohio GOP has used to its advantage. But as news reports and anecdotes seem to suggest, many rural voters also turned out to vote against this bill. This shift away from demagoguing the state via culture wars could be greatly diminished if the Ohio Dems and other progressive groups can use this to help create more political consensus on some key issues between rural, suburban and urban voters in the state. This issue alone may give more Ohioans who aren’t regular voters more reason to vote in future elections, as there’s been no shortage of bad press for this bill in virtually every newspaper across the state.
This could also spell doom for LaRose himself, who has launched his bid for the U.S. Senate against Democrat Sherrod Brown. LaRose has been a big proponent of Issue 1, posting his support on social media, traveling to rural parts of the state to get rural voters to turn out as “Yes” votes, and going so far as to claim the bill would stop special interests from interfering in Ohio politics. To the contrary, this bill was bankrolled by a Illinois conservative billionaire Richard Uihlein. This unethical (if not illegal, as some are beginning to charge) use of his political office to both promote this bill and his U.S. Senate candidacy may turn off centrist Republican voters who also voted against Issue 1.
A new era for cross-issue coalition building?
One of the most striking things about the coalition of No on 1 organizations is how many organizations joined this effort and how they cross so many different issues and constituencies. There are, of course, voting rights groups, but also labor unions, education advocates, reproductive rights organizations, faith-based institutions, racial justice, youth organizations, LGBTQ groups, and even Black sororities and several local YWCA/YMCA chapters. The list of organizations on the Vote No in August website tops out at over 200. The Vote Yes Ohio website lists as endorsers all the top Republican lawmakers in the state and a total of 14 organizations, none of which are surprising.
I’m not sure what the future plans are for the No on 1 coalition, but to have garnered the support of this many institutions across the entire state could help create a new kind of state coalition to mobilize on future issues, which is something that would not have happened had not the Republicans overreached in this effort in the first place.
A Democratic Party opportunity
Lastly the state Democratic Party may use this win to rebuild. Following their work on social media and in the press to defeat Issue 1, this may re-energize and refocus the party so that they are better able to turn out voters in future elections and win new seats. The Dems who have struggled with a unifying message and a strategy to turn out enough voters to become a formidable opponent to the GOP juggernaut in Ohio.
I’ve been the biggest critic of the Ohio Dems over the past three years because I felt like they’ve failed to learn the lessons from the Obama years. Big-tent organizing that uses micro-targeting of Democratic constituencies to better turn out Democratic voters is what’s needed. Instead of running Tim Ryan style campaigns (i.e. targeting white men in rural areas who already have it all in with the MAGA movement) that fail to inspire or mobilize young people, Black, Latino, Asian, Native American or Middle Eastern voters, the LGBTQ community, etc., we need to double down on engaging Democratic voters and then figure out messaging and an engagement strategy to peel off other votes from Republicans, not the other way around.
The 2022 elections were a real missed opportunity to use the many Republican corruption scandals to define them as the party of grift, special interests and corruption. But the examples, of which there were many, were barely mentioned (including the First Energy bribery scandal, the Medicaid director seemingly currying favor for a company she’s invested in, and the broken unemployment insurance system that cost the state billions and unnecessary hardships for household during COVID-19 shutdowns).
Finally, one of the other things Issue 1 should make plain for Ohioans is the need for another ballot initiative to create an independent redistricting commission. The state already overwhelmingly voted in favor of ending partisan gerrymandering, but the current commission has a Republican supermajority, and three times ignored the voters and the Ohio Supreme Court orders to make fair maps.
It’s a good thing that Issue 1 was defeated for its own sake. But I don’t think the Ohio GOP counted on making so many Ohioans angry enough to vote in normally low turn-out August. And those who voted “No” cut across party lines, urban/rural divides, a large and diverse set of community and state-based organizations and represent every demographic in the state. Many of the Republicans who got behind this fraud of an issue have now given Dems a very clear message to run on: The Republican Party is corrupt, two-faced, cynical and think we’re all too stupid to see through it.
Hopefully the voters have taught them a lesson.
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