When is a referendum not just a referendum? When two appear simultaneously and collide in a supernova, one a power play by the Ohio Republican Party to stop another by abortion rights advocates to keep the GOP-controlled legislature, post-Roe, from decriminalizing abortion.
Abortion is legal up to 22 weeks in Ohio, but it’s threatened by new state laws under judicial review. Pro-choice forces want a referendum on the November ballot to insert “a fundamental right to reproductive freedom” in the state constitution. But Ohio Republicans want to kill that by raising the threshold for winning from a simple 50-percent majority to 60 percent. This is a tacit admission by Buckeye State conservatives that majority rule is dispensable and that the pro-choice groups were on track to succeed. Polls showed it would easily clear 50 percent but have a more challenging time topping 60 percent.
Across the country, anti-legal abortion Republicans got panicky when, following the Supreme Court’s 2022 reversal of Roe v. Wade, voters in six states, presented with the opportunity to rescind their state’s laws or judicial rulings keeping abortion legal, chose instead to keep a rough facsimile of Roe in place. Even in the very red state of Kansas, 59 percent of voters opted to stick with their more liberal abortion laws that existed before Roe was overturned—most rejecting the opportunity the Supreme Court gave them to give zygotes and blastulas legal rights. What’s the matter with Kansas, anyway?
What a bummer for Ohio Republicans to watch defeat seized from the jaws of their Samuel Alito-authored victory. The results are a double whammy: Having the pro-choice question on the ballot would likely drive Democrats and moderate Republicans—particularly suburban women—to the polls.
To keep what happened in Topeka in Topeka, Ohio Republicans had to go against their own well-known philosophy about pop-up elections, that they shalt not be held in the dog days of summer. Earlier this year, the Republican-controlled General Assembly restricted elections in August except in the case of a certified fiscal emergency which the one requiring a 60-percent threshold to pass a referendum in November is not. The state’s top elections official, Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, agreed. He said it wastes tens of millions of dollars in administrative costs and is “bad news for the civic health of our state” as it allows “too few voters to make big decisions.”
But LaRose’s concern was fleeting since high-intensity voters, who understand what’s at stake, will show up for a preliminary bout in which it will only take 50 percent to force the other side to win with 60 in November. What good was stacking the court with conservatives to overturn Roe if a simple majority of Ohioans can return the gift unopened?
Despite reversing the field to hold an election in low-turnout August, the GOP needed to cheat still more. Their long-running, intense effort to depress the vote—changing hours and locations, slowing the expansion of vote-by-mail and early voting, not to mention aerobic gerrymandering was not enough. The GOP statehouse took the wholly unnecessary step of scrapping the old simple ballots for specific, state-issued ones under the guise of ballot security (read: making it harder to vote).
Here’s where you might find it comic if the stakes weren’t so high. The group leading the 60-percent-threshold campaign didn’t bother using the time-consuming form Republicans had devised. The Plain Dealer and Cleveland.com discovered that Protect Our Constitution sent out a solicitation urging early voting and included a 2017 request for an absentee ballot that was made null and void by a sweeping election law that the statehouse passed last year. That law, among other things, severely limited the forms of IDs that could be used in voting, decreed only one ballot dropbox per county no matter how populous, shortened the time for requesting an absentee ballot, and limited the use of drive-up, curbside voting. Conservatives had fallen into the trap of their own making. Adding to the irony is how Ohio Republicans are now encouraging vote by mail and other forms of early voting—the best way to avoid having to round up your supporters on election day—after discouraging the practice.
How many invalid requests for absentee ballots the pro-60-percent group harvested with the wrong form is unclear. But it turned out not to matter. Before you could say butterfly ballot, Secretary of State LaRose found his tender side and certified them. How likely would he have done so if Planned Parenthood had submitted the wrong forms? Just asking.
While the thank you notes were still pouring in for allowing conservative forces to escape a trap they inadvertently set, LaRose entered the race to unseat three-term incumbent U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown next year. LaRose has the advantage of being the best-known of the Republicans running, and a recent poll of declared and undeclared candidates showed him tied with Matt Dolan, a popular figure whose family owns Cleveland’s Major League Baseball franchise.
It isn’t surprising that Dolan would run. Politics is often called sports for nerds, and figures from one ballfield often suit up for the other. But the similarities are in decline. In the last decade, sports have become more transparent (leaving out the Saudi deal with pro golf) and cleaner. Players don’t choose referees, and refs enforce rules, evenhandedly, in public, not in a smoke-filled backroom. No matter how wrong he thinks a call is, a player hears a whistle and accepts the penalty, even if it means heading to the lockers. In an essay arguing that sports could teach us a lot about life, Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Sally Jenkins wrote that there is no accepted win or loss possible in an election or a Super Bowl unless those in the arena recognize there will be a winner and a loser—determined fairly—and that there is right and wrong in the world. “Without the distinction,” she writes, “it’s just rolling in the dirt.”
Trump normalized rolling in the dirt with so much lying, cheating, and stealing that we got used to it, and it’s trickled down. LaRose, who is backing Trump’s reelection bid, is blessing invalid ballots in service of a mid-summer vote to raise the threshold for a pro-choice ballot is the very definition of a ref taking off the black-and-white striped jersey, grabbing a uniform, and shiving the other players for good measure. You need not wonder what LaRose, if Trump asked him, as he did Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger, to find 11,780 votes would do. Let’s just say he would not have shown backbone if a Senate seat were in the offing. While Raffensberger still has his job, he hasn’t leapfrogged to the head of the line for a better one, while LaRose, with cause, must believe that tilting the playing field is a springboard to the Senate, where he would partner with the state’s other mediocre senator, J.D. Vance. To think, Ohio once elected senators like John Glenn and Robert Taft.
Would that this was just Ohio, once a swing state, now like Missouri, shedding Democrats and turning more MAGA by the day? If Trump, the insurrectionist, becomes the party’s nominee, almost to a man and woman, Republican officials say they will support him. What a world. Trump could be back in the White House, Hunter Biden and his laptop in prison, and abortion illegal in Ohio because the pro-choice forces had to produce a supermajority.
In politics as it’s practiced now, cheating from the Oval Office Resolute Desk to the veneer tables in the statehouse, in ways small and grand, pays. No wonder there’s so much of it.