Referendum Fatigue

If you eat enough turkey over the holidays you can get a condition called “turkey fatigue.”  In Ohio, I’m working on a serious case of referendum fatigue.

In November, Ohioans will vote on three “issues.”  I’ve written about Issue 2; UJ has discussed his position on the issues here.  Ohio Democrats, miffed about how majority Republicans drew congressional districts, also want a referendum on that law.  An anti-abortion group wants to amend the Ohio Constitution to define “personhood.”  In recent elections, the Constitution has been amended on several occasions, including to allow casino gambling.  It’s getting so that you can’t walk to the library without someone asking you to sign a petition for another statewide vote.

In Ohio, it’s not hard to get an issue on the ballot.  For a referendum — an action to challenge a new law — you need an initial petition signed by 1,000 registered voters and then a petition signed by six percent of the total vote cast for governor in the last election, with signatures obtained from 44 of the 88 Ohio counties that equal three percent of the votes cast for governor from those counties.  The Columbus Dispatch, in a story about the “Personhood Amendment,” said 385,000 signatures would be needed to put it on the ballot.   That sounds like a lot, but it is only a small fraction of the 11.5 million people who live in the Buckeye State, and is not a huge challenge for a well-funded, single-issue organization.

That’s exactly why the increasing resort to referendums is a bad thing.  In Ohio, government is not decided by direct votes of citizens; we elect representatives who are supposed to study the issues, take testimony, and reach considered decisions.  The referendum process means that the losing side on any legislative battle need only convince a small percentage of Ohioans to sign a petition, and the duly enacted law will be delayed until the election is held.

That result raises issues for both Republicans and Democrats, because Ohio is a swing state.  If Democrats use the referendum process now, Republicans surely will do so when they are out of power.   The elections impose costs and lead to the kind of over-the-top dialogue we are seeing now with Issue 2.  On the complex issues confronting a diverse state like Ohio — where multiple constituencies and repercussions must be weighed — having decisions made by voters who are informed primarily by alarmist 30-second TV ads just isn’t good policy.