Sweeping Up Ohio

Sweeping Up Ohio

There’s a way to cure Ohio’s dysfunctional electoral system: an election-reform referendum that allows creation of “swing districts.”


No state in the nation has been rocked by more political scandal in the past year than Republican-controlled Ohio, where a prominent GOP fundraiser–a Bush Pioneer, no less–was revealed to have been handed $50 million from a state program for injured workers to invest in a scheme to buy rare coins. Then it came out that the state’s Bureau of Workers’ Compensation had lost $225 million after investing in high-risk hedge funds, including one managed by a major Republican contributor. Governor Bob Taft claimed to know nothing about the deals, but he’s since been convicted of four misdemeanors for failing to report $6,000 in gifts from backers, including the coin dealer.

The scandals have finished off Taft politically and imperiled many of the other Republicans who currently control every state constitutional office and both houses of the legislature. But savvy Ohioans recognize that getting rid of the current crew will not fix the broken system that made possible one-party dominance of a state where the 2004 presidential election revealed a nearly even partisan split–and it won’t fix the cronyism and corruption that go with such dominance. “The time is ripe for reform,” says Scarlett Bauder of the independent grassroots group Reform Ohio Now. And RON, with backing from independents, renegade Republicans, progressive Democrats like US Representative Sherrod Brown, organized labor and religious groups, has seized the initiative. Over the summer RON activists collected more than 520,000 signatures that put four constitutional amendments on the November 8 ballot. If enacted, the amendments will represent what many observers believe will be the most sweeping cleanup of politics in any state since the Progressive Era reforms of almost a century ago.

Contemporary progressives have often been skeptical about taking the referendum route. After all, some of the ugliest assaults on civil society–from California’s draconian Proposition 13 back in the 1970s to the anti-gay marriage measures in recent years–have taken the form of citizen-sponsored initiatives. But referendums also provide an opportunity to force progressive reforms that legislators are unwilling to make. In Ohio the four RON amendments would make it easier to vote by allowing all Ohioans to cast ballots by mail; place strict new limits on campaign contributions; put a bipartisan Board of Supervisors in charge of Ohio’s scandal-plagued electoral system; and end the traditional practice of allowing legislators to draw their own district lines–and those for the US House of Representatives–by putting an independent commission in charge of the process.

Unlike this fall’s redistricting referendum in California, where Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to give line-drawing responsibilities to a bipartisan panel of judges, the Ohio proposal is all about democracy. It would create an open competition for new district maps–with the winners being those who come up with the most competitive “swing” districts. “It would bring Ohio politics to life,” enthuses the Dayton Daily News, “creating contests where there are none now.”

Ohio Republicans who have taken full advantage of the current system are understandably unenthusiastic about this move to restore competitive politics. So, too, are Congressional Republicans like former House majority leader Tom DeLay, who are acutely interested in maintaining a system that has allowed their party to enjoy a 12-to-6 partisan advantage in the state’s US House delegation. An anti-reform group, dubbed Ohio First, is running a big-budget campaign to defeat the referendum proposals. Republican state representative Kevin DeWine, a spokesman for Ohio First, admitted early in the process that “I won’t tell you we won’t try to raise money out of Ohio.” Contribution reports indicate that most of the group’s money is indeed coming from non-Ohio sources.

The package of reform proposals has also attracted national attention from progressives–particularly those frustrated by reports of unequal access to the polls, flawed voting machinery and inaccurate counting procedures that arose during and after the close 2004 vote giving that state’s electoral votes and the presidency to George W. Bush. “As we have seen with the presidential election in 2004, what happens in Ohio affects the whole country,” says Representative John Conyers Jr., ranking Democrat on the House judiciary committee and author of a scathing study of the state’s dysfunctional electoral system. “The culture of corruption that exists there is an injustice to our democratic system of government…. That is why the vote in Ohio on November 8 this year is of historic national importance.”

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