American democracy is in sorry shape—battered on all sides by big money, restrictions on voting and vapid media that trivialize rather than enlighten. But Robert M. La Follette and the progressive reformers who a century ago established direct primaries, initiatives, and referendums; an elected US Senate; and voting rights for women always said that “the cure for what ails democracy is more democracy.”
In Ohio today, voters have an opportunity to apply the cure.
Ohio Issue 1, a proposed constitutional amendment to ban partisan gerrymandering and establish a bipartisan Ohio Redistricting Commission to draw legislative district lines, is being pitched as a good-government reform. But that undersells its significance. This is a bold response to America’s broken political processes.
The vote on Issue 1 is one of a number of vital tests that are in the ballot in states across the country today, as Americans go to the polls for a classic off-year election in which:
- Voters in Kentucky will settle a hotly contested race for governor and other statewide posts, in elections that could send important signals regarding the popular mood as the country heads toward the 2016 presidential contest. The same goes for legislative races in New Jersey and Virginia. Mississippi will also elect a governor Tuesday, while a critical runoff for governor of Louisiana will be held November 21.
- Ohio voters will consider marijuana legalization, while Colorado voters will decide what to do with tax revenues from pot sales.
- Cities across the country will choose mayors and local officials while settling key referendum questions. The local races feature a number of bold progressives, such as Toledo mayoral hopeful Mike Ferner (a former city councilman and past national board president of Veterans for Peace) and Seattle Council member Kshama Sawant (the Socialist Alternative incumbent and $15-an-hour wage champion who is campaigning for rent control, public transportation and municipal broadband). In very conservative Utah (which gave President Obama less than 25 percent of the vote in 2012, his lowest percentage nationally), Salt Lake City may elect the first openly gay member of the Utah Legislature, Jackie Biskupski, as the mayor of the state’s largest municipality.
- Local referendums and races will provide perspectives on national issues. In San Francisco, for instance, voters will decide whether to restrict the operations of Airbnb—in a groundbreaking attempt to regulate the new economy—and a proposal to help San Francisco-based “legacy businesses” to survive rent hikes and lease terminations. They will also determine whether to keep Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, who has been the target of right-wing attacks for respecting the intent of San Francisco’s “sanctuary city” ordinance. In Houston, voters will determine whether to enact the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), a measure that protects residents and visitors from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, and religion. The the city of Seattle and the state of Maine will vote on innovative campaign finance reform proposals.
What makes Ohio’s Issue 1 test stand out is the fact that voters are being given a chance to address a key source of the political dysfunction that influences so many other issues.