Democracy and constitutional government is under assault in Ohio. What are we going to do about it?

November 15, 2023 4:30 am
The Ohio burgee waving along with the national flag of the United States of America. Getty Images.

The Ohio burgee waving along with the national flag of the United States of America. Getty Images.

If you’re worried about the state of the nation, welcome to the club. For at least a decade, a number of troubling signs have emerged which raise questions about the health of the American republic. Make no mistake. The warning indicator sensor light is indeed flashing red.

The most telling indicators of stress on the body politic include blatant gerrymandering, where politicians get to pick their voters, voter roll purging, and voting restrictions designed to suppress electoral turnout. The 2020 election result, which at 66.6% featured the highest percentage of voter turnout since the election of William McKinley in 1900, provided a further incentive for some legislatures across the nation to create roadblocks in the democratic process.

There are two key events which started the slow death of our electoral system. The first, Citizens United v. FEC, decided in 2010, allowed a tidal wave of dark money from corporations to contaminate the system. Moreover, astroturf organizations are proliferating, shielding the original source of political donations and thus skirting reporting requirements and the accountability that comes with them. Indeed, it was none other than Mitt Romney who framed the new post-Citizens United political landscape in 2011 when he famously said that “Corporations are people, my friend.” 

A second key factor in the slow-motion electoral train wreck is found in another aberrant Supreme Court ruling that occurred three years after the infamous Citizens United case. It was in 2013, as Washington Post columnist and Brookings Institution Senior Fellow E. J. Dionne relates in his book, “100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting,” that the Supreme Court gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act in its Shelby County v. Holder decision. In the intervening years, because of less stringent requirements by federal courts, southern states have eliminated nearly 1,200 polling places, a result of the high court’s disastrous ruling.

For many people in the south, their once-familiar neighborhood voting precinct is no longer around the corner. And in the rest of the country, whether it’s a polling place farther away, tougher voter ID requirements, or shorter periods for early voting, it is indeed more difficult to vote in many locales since the 2020 election.

And the reason for all of this? Politicians (read Republicans) don’t like too many people showing up at the polls.

All of these actions certainly confirm the assault on democracy being led by the Republican Party, an organization which has lost the national popular vote seven times in the last eight presidential elections. At the same time, we should stipulate that the most anti-democratic (small d, but in this case maybe capital D as well) feature in the U.S. Constitution is the Electoral College, where the Republican popular vote loser became the winner in 2000 and 2016, a flaw that the populace somehow seems to tolerate election after election.

But as bad as the erosion of our un-democratic (think Electoral College) system might be, it’s even worse than we think, as the party’s 2012 standard bearer has said in a new book.

In a newly published biography, Mitt Romney is quoted as saying, A very large portion of my party really doesn’t believe in the Constitution.”

The proof of Romney’s assertion is all around us, particularly in Ohio, where an authoritarian legislature led by Senate President Matt Huffman has executed two recent measures that are blatantly unconstitutional and are subject to several lawsuits. 

Exhibit A: In June, the legislature passed an expanded educational voucher bill which allows the state to subsidize tuition at private and religious schools. As of mid-October, 87,000 applications to receive public funds for the support of private purposes have been received, far exceeding earlier estimates. Never mind that Article VI, Section 2 of Ohio’s constitution says in part that The General Assembly shall make a … thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state; but no religious or other sect, or sects, shall ever have any exclusive right to, or control of, any part of the school funds of this state.”

Exhibit B: If the flagrant disregard of the constitution’s Article VI weren’t enough for an out-of-control legislature, the transfer of most of the functions and autonomy of the Ohio Department of Education and State Board into the governor’s office is affirmation of Mitt Romney’s statement that “… my party doesn’t believe in the Constitution.” Article VI, Section 4, enacted in 1953, was designed in the first place to remove the state education function from the governor’s office and the political process. Never mind that 70 years ago, statewide voters approved this portion of the Ohio Constitution: “There shall be a state board of education which shall be selected in such manner and for such terms as shall be provided by law. There shall be a superintendent of public instruction, who shall be appointed by the state board of education.” 

But wait, there’s more – much more, as is usually the case with authoritarian Republicans. The transfer of state education functions to the governor’s office that was enabled and thus hidden in a comprehensive budget bill was in clear violation of Article II, Section 15(D) of the Ohio Constitution, which provides that no bill of the General Assembly “shall contain more than one subject, which shall be clearly expressed in its title.” The single-subject provision emerged in 1850 as part of discussions in the Ohio Constitutional Convention.

With all of this undisputed evidence of undemocratic and unconstitutional behavior by the state legislature, the arrogance of Ohio Republicans is clearly shown by Huffman:

Exhibit C: We can kind of do what we want,” Huffman famously said in 2022.

And they have. As Ohio citizens assess the damage to democracy and constitutional government inflicted by Republicans, an erosion of voting rights, the foundational basis for public education, and the role of the public in school governance, we are reminded of an earlier symbol of public corruption that went unchecked for years.

In 1871, the cartoonist Thomas Nast railed at the corruption of Tammany Hall, the notorious New York City Democratic machine, and created an image for the ages that depicted the assault on Lady Liberty for all to see. He asked this question which, in light of the assault on democracy and constitutional government by the Ohio Republican Party, amplifying the previous corrosive actions of the U.S. Supreme Court, must be asked again, 150 years later: “What are you going to do about it?”

Just think. A Georgia prosecutor using her state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act is gaining convictions against the cabal which conspired to overturn the 2020 election results. What if, yes, what if Ohio’s citizens start asking if there is a corrupt organization masquerading as a political party that exists for the purpose of undermining democracy and constitutional government?

If that is the case, is there an existing RICO-like statute that can be used in the future to deal with a corrupt organization that is masquerading as a political party?

It’s past time to start posing that question. But it is time to show up in so many forms by raising our voices and showing the determination to rid ourselves of corruption that is corrosive to our society. Enough is too much.

The warning indicator sensor light of our republic is indeed flashing red.

What are we going to do about it?



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Denis Smith
Denis Smith

Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and served as a consultant in the Ohio Department of Education's charter school office. He has additional experience working in marketing communications with a publisher and in association management as an executive with a national professional society. Mr. Smith is a member of the board of Public Education Partners.