COLUMBUS, Ohio — After Ohio voters repealed a law pushed by Republicans that would have limited unions' collective bargaining rights in 2011, then-GOP Gov. John Kasich was contrite.
“I’ve heard their voices, I understand their decision and, frankly, I respect what people have to say in an effort like this,” he told reporters after the defeat.
The tone from Ohio Republicans was much different this past week after voters resoundingly rejected their attempt to impose hurdles on passing amendments to the state constitution — a proposal that would have made it much more difficult to pass an abortion rights measure in November.
During an election night news conference, Republican Senate President Matt Huffman vowed to use the powers of his legislative supermajority to bring the issue back soon, variously blaming out-of-state dark money, unsupportive fellow Republicans, a lack of time and the issue's complexity for its failure.
He never mentioned respecting the will of the 57% of Ohio voters across both Democratic and Republican counties who voted “no" on the Republican proposal.
The striking contrast illustrates an increasing antagonism among elected Republicans across the country toward the nation’s purest form of direct democracy — the citizen-initiated ballot measure — as it threatens their lock on power in states where they control the legislature.
Historically, attempts to undercut the citizen ballot initiative process have come from both parties, said Daniel A. Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida.
“It has to do with which party is in monopolistic control of state legislatures and the governorship,” he said. “When you have that monopoly of power, you want to restrict the voice of a statewide electorate that might go against your efforts to control the process.”
According to a recent report by the nonpartisan Fairness Project, Ohio and five other states where Republicans control the legislature — Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Missouri and North Dakota — have either passed, attempted to pass or are currently working to pass expanded supermajority requirements for voters to approve statewide ballot measures.
At least six states, including Ohio, have sought to increase the number of counties where signatures must be gathered.
The group found that at least six of the 24 states that allow ballot initiatives have prohibited out-of-state petition circulators and nine have prohibited paid circulators altogether, the group reports.
Eighteen states have required circulators to swear oaths that they've seen every signature put to paper. Arkansas has imposed background checks on circulators. South Dakota has dictated such a large font size on petitions that it makes circulating them cumbersome.
Sarah Walker, policy and legal advocacy director for the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, said Republicans in Ohio and elsewhere are restricting the ballot initiative process in an era of renewed populism that’s not going their way. She said conservatives had no interest in amending the ballot initiative process when they were winning campaigns in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“Since then, you’ve seen left-leaning organizations really developing their organizational skills and starting to win,” she said. “The reason given for restricting the ballot initiative is often to insulate the state from outside special interests. But if lawmakers are interested in limiting that, there are things they can do legislatively to restrict those groups, and I don’t see them having any interest in doing that.”
Aggressive stances by Republican supermajorities at the Ohio Statehouse — including supporting one of the nation's most stringent abortion bans, refusing to pass many of a GOP governor's proposed gun control measures in the face of a deadly mass shooting, and repeatedly producing unconstitutional political maps — have motivated would-be reformers.
That prompted an influential mix of Republican politicians, anti-abortion and gun rights organizations and business interests in the state to push forward with Tuesday's failed amendment, which would have raised the threshold for passing future constitutional changes from a simple majority to a 60% supermajority.
Another example is Missouri, where Republicans plan to try again to raise the threshold to amend that state’s constitution during the legislative session that begins in 2024 — after earlier efforts have failed.
Those plans come in a state where state lawmakers refused to fund a Medicaid expansion approved by voters until forced to by a court order, and where voters enshrined marijuana in the constitution last fall after lawmakers failed to. An abortion rights question is headed to Missouri’s 2024 ballot.
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose is among Republicans in the state who cast Issue 1 as a fight against out-of-state special interests, although both sides of the campaign were heavily funded by such groups.
He called the $20 million special election “only one battle in a long war.”
“Unfortunately," he said, "we were dramatically outspent by dark money billionaires from California to New York, and the giant ‘for sale’ sign still hangs on Ohio’s constitution,” said LaRose, who is running for U.S. Senate in 2024.
Fairness Project Executive Director Kelly Hall said Ohio Republicans’ promise to come back with another attempt to restrict the initiative process “says more about representational democracy than it does about direct democracy.”
She rejected the narrative that out-of-state special interests are using the avenue of direct democracy to force unpopular policies into state constitutions, arguing corporate influence is far greater on state lawmakers.
“The least out-of-state venue is direct democracy, because then millions of Ohioans are participating, not just the several dozen who are receiving campaign contributions from corporate PACs, who are receiving perks and meetings and around-the-clock influence from corporate PACs,” she said.
"Ballot measures enable issues that matter to working families to actually get on the agenda in a state, rather than the agenda being set by those who can afford lobbyists and campaign contributions.”