On August 8, Ohio voters roundly rejected Issue 1, a referendum (or legislatively referred ballot initiative) that would have raised the winning threshold for future ballot initiatives to 60 percent instead of a simple majority, making it harder to get citizen initiatives on the ballot.
Issue 1 was widely understood as a proxy war for abortion rights, as Ohio will see an initiative on abortion this November. All six state ballot initiatives on abortion rights in 2022 went the direction of reproductive freedom with between 52 and 59 percent of the vote, and Issue 1 was attempting to raise the bar for victory above the 58 percent of Ohio voters who polls suggest will support abortion rights.
Issue 1 was designed to derail abortion rights. It was also part of a multistate attack by state legislatures on the citizen initiative process. The campaign began in the mid-2010s after a series of initiatives passed egalitarian policies like raising minimum wages, expanding Medicaid coverage, and taxing the rich to fund public services.
Ballot Initiative Chess
Limited as they are, citizen-initiated ballot measures represent the only avenue for regular people to pass popular policies without going through representatives and party machines. In the past decade, labor unions and rights advocacy groups have passed a slew of progressive and redistributive policies at the state and municipal levels, demonstrating the wide popularity of left-wing policy in “red” and “blue” states alike.
The ink was still drying on the first wave of these wins in 2014–2016 when a concerted opposition began launching attacks on initiatives that put people before profit, and on the citizen initiative process in general. Those attacks have spread, escalating with the six wins for reproductive freedom in 2022.
The offensive against initiatives is coming from a variety of angles, including hundreds of bills being proposed in state legislatures around the country to impose onerous rules and regulations or give state legislators authority to overturn initiative wins. All are designed to increase the already significant costs of getting initiatives on the ballot and to make the process less accessible for ordinary people. In some instances, initiatives that pass are gutted by state legislatures or overturned by courts, such as Arizona’s 2020 Proposition 208, which taxed the rich to fund public schools. In other cases, opponents attempt to stack the deck ahead of an initiative vote.
In South Dakota, health care advocates qualified an initiative for the November 2022 ballot to expand Medicaid coverage. Fearing its popularity, Republican legislators rushed a referendum onto the June primary that would raise the winning threshold for citizen initiatives to 60 percent. Despite the sponsors’ partisan messaging in an all-Republican state — arguing that a simple majority for ballot initiatives enables Democrats and outside interests to fool people into voting for policies they don’t really want — voters understood that it was the sponsors of “Amendment C” who were trying to fool them into relinquishing their voting power. Amendment C was routed, and months later, the Medicaid expansion amendment passed.
The South Dakota attempt failed in 2022, but its strategy was picked up by Ohio Republicans who wanted to move the goalposts ahead of the November abortion initiative. Like Medicaid, abortion rights are widely popular, including in many Republican constituencies, so preventing a successful popular vote requires rigging the game. And though most attempts to undercut the ballot initiative process by referendum fail, two such votes passed in 2022, both in Arizona: a 60 percent rule and a “single-subject” rule — another alteration that can sound like common sense but in practice is used as a bludgeon against initiatives that legislatures and judiciaries don’t like.
Supporters of Ohio Issue 1 made little secret of their intentions. State representative Brian Stewart put it succinctly: “There are a host of issues that we know are coming down the pike . . . that applies to abortion, that applies to redistricting, that applies to wage hikes, that applies to qualified immunity [for police officers].” According to Stewart, raising the bar to 60 percent would protect Ohioans from “outside-of-Ohio money” influencing votes on these issues that is “contrary to what the elected legislature would elect.”
Of course, if the goal was to prevent outside money from influencing Ohio elections, the referendum would have addressed that issue. In fact, the campaign for Issue 1 itself received more than $6 million in cash donations from a Washington, DC–based antiabortion organization and $4 million more from major right-wing donor Richard Uihlein, whose homes are in Illinois and Wisconsin.
The full cynicism of referendums like Issue 1 is evident in their own logic — they argue that supermajority support should be required for voters to make important decisions, yet the votes to enact the 60 percent rule only require 50 percent-plus-one to pass. Arizona’s 60 percent rule, the only successful attempt in recent years, passed with 51 percent.
In reality, Stewart hits the nail on the head: initiatives are about people passing policies that legislatures will not. Legislative agendas primarily reflect the interests of the wealthiest strata of society, who have privileged access to elected officials through elite networks, campaign donations and favors, and the leverage they hold over the economy. As citizen initiatives are being used to directly legislate people-first policies, elected representatives are trying to convince voters to let them overrule popular will on issues like, to use Stewart’s list, abortion, fair wages, gerrymandering, and police accountability.
The Consequential Fight for Initiatives
Citizen initiatives were proposed by the Populist Movement in the late nineteenth century as a tool for regular people to directly legislate in the face of an elite-captured two-party system. Their use at the time to pass workers’ rights and enfranchise women led to harsh backlash from state legislatures from both parties, which stemmed the tide of states adopting the initiative process — only twenty-five states have some type of citizen initiative today, though many more municipalities do.
A similar fight is playing out today. Issue 1 was about preventing a popular decision on abortion rights in the short term and undercutting majority influence over policymaking in the long term. This struggle is playing out across the country, with hot spots for attacks on ballot initiatives in states like Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, Montana, and Oklahoma.
Initiatives should be defended for their ability to pass policies over the heads of party leaders. Beyond direct policymaking, the fight to defend the popular vote against elite-captured legislatures is an opportunity to build bases on majoritarian leftist policy that voters want and their representatives fear.