There, progressive forces, including those aligned with Cleveland Mayor Tom Johnson, and Social Gospel activists led by the Reverend Herbert S. Bigelow of Cincinnati’s Vine Street Congregational Church, clamored for initiative and referenda reforms. In 1906, a referendum bill passed the state Senate but died in the lower house. Two years later, activists secured full legislative approval, but the governor, closely aligned with the state’s business interests, worked behind the scenes to kill the bill in conference committee.
It took a state constitutional convention in 1912, during the high-water mark of political progressivism — the same year that Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson squared off against each other for the White House — to get a referendum provision on the ballot. Notably, both leading presidential candidates backed the idea. In a speech before the Ohio constitutional convention, Roosevelt affirmed, “I believe in the Initiative and Referendum, which should be used not to destroy representative government, but to correct it whenever it becomes misrepresentative.” Wilson, for his part, observed that the “immediate thing we have got to do is resume popular government. We are cleaning house and in order to clean house the one thing we need is a good broom. Initiative & Referendum are good brooms.”
The lead-up to the ratification vote was “the most bitter and momentous struggle known in the state for a generation,” a contemporary observer noted. “Every ruse and trick known to Big Business politicians was employed to frighten the people of Ohio from adopting the I&R. The whole corporate power of the state backed by Wall Street money and influence was thrown into the fight.” In the end, the provision won with over 57 percent support.
Once a swing state, Ohio has grown steadily redder in recent years. But it is also one of the most extreme cases in legislative and congressional gerrymandering in the country. By drawing maps that stack the decks in their favor, engaging in widespread voter registration purges that disproportionately affect young and minority voters and making it harder to register altogether, the legislative majority — even in defiance of the State Supreme Court, which has ruled some of these practices unconstitutional — has ensured for itself a lasting supermajority, seemingly in perpetuity.
But in attempting to ram an unpopular abortion ban down the voters’ throats, and in their cynical attempt to change the way referendums operate to preserve that widely detested law, the GOP majority may have overplayed its hand. To paraphrase Roosevelt, when a legislature becomes “misrepresentative,” a referendum can operate as a much-needed corrective.
Today’s vote will determine whether Ohioans preserve an important artifact of their Progressive Era legacy. As was the case in 1912, at issue is the very nature of what it means to govern and be governed.