During the past few years in Cincinnati, various citizen groups have placed numerous issues on the ballot to amend the city’s charter.
The issues — which included selling the Greater Cincinnati Water Works or installing cameras to catch motorists who run red lights — have drawn criticism from elected officials, who call them “government by referendum” and believe they should be making those types of policy decisions.
At the state level, a bipartisan proposal would make it more difficult to place citizen-led initiatives on the Ohio ballot. Under the new requirements, for example, the recent approval for statewide casino gambling wouldn’t have passed.
Supporters say the new law would that ensure special interests don’t dominate at the polls by spending large amounts of cash on advertising. Critics, however, allege it feeds public apathy and the current trend toward low voter turnout.
Among opponents are some Tea Party chapters and Citizens for Community Values (CCV), which was behind Ohio’s anti-gay marriage ballot initiative in 2004. That measure — which was approved by 61.7 percent of voters — boosted conservative voter turnout and helped President George W. Bush win Ohio and a second term.
State Reps. John Domenick and Margaret Ann Ruhl (pictured above) introduced House Joint Resolution 13 last December, calling it an effort to “protect” Ohio’s Constitution.
If passed by the elections committee in Ohio’s House of Representatives, the bill would place in the state Constitution a requirement for a super-majority of voters (67 percent, or a two-thirds majority) to pass citizen-initiated ballot issues or referendum efforts.
In other words, voters would no longer be able to have a ballot issue or referendum pass with just the support of a simple majority, 50 percent plus one, as the Ohio Constitution currently requires.
“We’re constantly changing the constitution, and I feel that we need to protect it,” says Ruhl, the resolution’s Republican co-sponsor, who represents the Mount Vernon area. “If it’s really a good issue, it shouldn’t be a problem to get more than the simple majority to pass it.”
The resolution was conceived by Domenick, a Democrat who represents Jefferson and eastern Belmont counties and currently is serving his fourth term. He argues that a simple-majority rule doesn’t always reflect the collective interest of Ohio’s registered voters but often represents the interest of a small percentage of participatory voters who belong to grassroots organizations or have been influenced by outside interest groups.
“To me, the Constitution is a document that has done pretty well for the last few hundred years,” Domenick says. “We should not just let anyone move in and tamper with it, especially outside interest and people with a lot of money who like to influence not only ballot issues but also people’s minds with fancy advertising.
“If you have enough money, you can change the whole system.”
Domenick cites last year’s state Issue 3, the Four Casinos Initiative, as an example of an issue that passed with scant voter turnout. He thinks most Ohioans oppose casino gambling but were tricked into approving it by a massive advertising campaign.
Domenick and Ruhl also highlight the fact that less than half of Ohio’s registered voters actually participate in the voting process. In the case of Issue 3, only 40 percent of Ohio’s registered voters actually voted on the issue, and the passage of Issue 3 reflected the approval of roughly 20 percent, or one fifth, of all registered voters in the state.
On this note, Ruhl argues that a simple-majority rule gives a small percentage of voters the potential power to impose changes on the Ohio Constitution that might not reflect the interest of the actual majority.
“If you look at how many people voted in the last November election, only around 40 percent of registered voters actually voted,” Ruhl says. “If only 40 percent of registered voters participate, then only a little more than 20 percent of registered voters can change our Constitution. That’s not representative of what the people of Ohio want.”
On the other side of the coin, the resolution’s proposal to heighten the threshold for citizen-initiated ballot issues or referendums has struck a nerve for some grassroots groups in Ohio.
An article published on CCV’s Web site details the hypothetical effect the resolution would have had on some of last year’s issues if the bill already had been adopted.
According to CCV’s analysis, Issue 1 to create bonds for veteran bonus payouts (initiated by the General Assembly) would still be adopted with 72 percent of the vote; Issue 2 to create a livestock care board (initiated by the General Assembly on request by agribusiness groups) would have failed with 63 percent of the vote; and Issue 3 (casinos, proposed by gambling companies) would have failed with 53 percent of the vote.
CCV argues that “overall, a super-majority proposal would prevent many good citizen initiatives from being adopted, while only preventing a small number of ‘problem’ issues from becoming law.”
In addition to the Four Casinos Initiative, Domenick uses Ohio’s ban against pit bulls as an example of what CCV refers to as a “problem issue.”
“We overreacted,” he says, criticizing the ban, which was adopted in 1987.
Domenick defends the resolution against CCV’s dismissive argument, claiming that all major issues that have been approved in the last 25 years have passed with more than 60 percent of the vote.
“(A threshold of) 60 percent would be a fair beginning,” he says. “I started a little higher simply for a negotiation point.”
Cincinnati City Councilman Chris Bortz favors the idea of boosting legislative power in order to keep control over grassroots initiatives that might unjustifiably change the document that has governed our state since 1802.
“Our Constitution should be more protected,” Bortz says. “When you’re talking about grassroots initiatives, it doesn’t necessarily mean there has been a deep analysis on either side. It can often break down to sound bites. So to create a higher threshold would make my job as a councilman easier.
“Anything less politically charged gives us the opportunity to do the work of public policy, which we were elected to do in a representative democracy.”
Despite the support of Bortz and many other constitutionalists in the state, Domenick reluctantly believes that the resolution ultimately will go nowhere in the statehouse.
“It’s dead in the water,” he says. “Too drastic.”
Nevertheless, Domenick says he’s still looking to the future and uses California’s lenient referendum process as an example to justify why Ohio needs the change. Citizen initiative laws have led to electoral chaos in California, including the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, which rolled back property values to their 1975 level and restricted annual increases in property values to an inflation factor not exceeding 2 percent per year.
As a result, California is facing a fiscal crisis that threatens to shut down state government, which oversees the eighth largest economy in the world.
“If people think Ohio is in trouble, just look at California,” Domenick says. “From a financial standpoint, from a moral standpoint, you name it. I don’t think we want to become a California, passing referendum after referendum and creating a huge deficit (for the state).”
Domenick and Ruhl’s resolution was presented to the House elections committee in March. It’s yet to be decided whether the bill will be put up for a vote in the full House of Representatives.