From the Plain Dealer Sunday November 3, 2013
The flaws behind the issues that confront voters on Ohio ballots: Thomas Suddes
That’s direct democracy for you, the fruit of three threads woven into Ohio politics. Thread One was Andrew Jackson’s (stated) belief in the common person (unless that person was black or Native American). Thread Two was the belief of Ohio Progressives in so-called “direct democracy.” History also wove a third thread into Ohio ballots, a legacy of Prohibition: Local option liquor elections. There are 308 local-option liquor questions on Tuesday’s ballot.
Those factors give Ohioans lots of choices several times a year. For instance, on Tuesday’s ballot are 1,055 proposed tax levies and 65 local income-tax questions. That ocean of yeses and noes means voters get direct say over how they’re taxed and governed. That’s a lot more say than voters in some other states get.
Of course, there’s a school of thought that Ohio voters are too dumb or stingy to make good choices. The school crowd, in particular, hates levy elections. Levy elections give Ohioans what amounts to a veto over school property taxes.
In contrast, unless a lobby, or ballot petitioners, mobilizes statewide, at great expense, to gather hundreds of thousands of voter signatures, Ohioans — usually — aren’t given ballot-box say over state taxes (e.g., income and sales taxes).
That can make school levies lightning rods for voter anger over other taxes (set in Columbus and Washington) or other public officials. (True, if all parents did their jobs, Ohio schools could do their jobs — at less expense, and with less hassle.)
Meanwhile, thanks to Progressives. who fashioned much of today’s Ohio Constitution in 1912, Ohioans can propose laws (the initiative); veto laws passed by the legislature (the referendum, such as 2011’s, on union-busting Senate Bill 5); or unseat local elected officials (the recall). According to Husted’s tally, Tuesday’s ballot includes 20 local initiative and referendum issues.
Most ballot questions — bond issues, Sunday liquor sales — are routine as standard time. Some, though, are high-octane. And direct-democracy reformers forgot that a mob can be a mob whether it uses streets or ballots, especially in statewide campaigns. Example: The gay-bashing 2004 initiative that aimed to ban same-sex marriage in Ohio, a vote that had far more to do with suburban southwest Ohio’s need to kick somebody — anybody — around than it had to do with sexuality.
And Ohioans were told loud and clear that 2009’s casino initiative would do far more for Dan Gilbert and Penn National Gaming than it would ever do for Ohio. But the casino crowd spent $50 million; their issue passed.
Advocates of direct democracy tended to come from comfortable backgrounds. But, then and now, most Ohioans are so hard-pressed rearing families, working jobs and trying, somehow, to relax, they don’t have the time to study up on issues or debate the constitution, or fine points of school funding.
Raymond Moley, a famed Greater Clevelander who landed in Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt’s Brain Trust but later became conservative, once looked back on the era of direct-democracy reforms. Moley decided the power given voters to legislate directly — through referendum and initiative — fell “far short of the romantic notions of the Progressives.”
One notion Ohio reformers had: The power of direct legislation would break the backs of special interests at Ohio’s city halls and courthouses, and especially on Capitol Square in Columbus.
Today, 101 years later, Ohioans know how that worked out.
Thomas Suddes, a member of the editorial board, writes from Athens.