Ohio voters affirm the “Defense of Democracy” enacted by Oregonians 25 years ago

August 9, 2023 10:00 am

In 1998, Oregon voters essentially voted against an attempt to make it more difficult to get ballot measures approved. (Lynne Terry/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Voters in Ohio turned back a blatant attempt to change the rules of their democracy this week, when they trounced a ballot referral designed by the state’s Republican Legislature to stymie a citizen initiative headed to the ballot in November. 

The issue in this case was abortion rights, which elevated Ohio’s Measure 1 to national prominence. And just as referenda on this issue across the nation are showing, the people of Ohio are clearly opposed to further limiting access to abortion in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s repeal of Roe v. Wade last year. 

But there was another issue at stake in the vote on Ohio’s Measure 1, which had a salience all its own – the ability of citizens to check the excesses of their government and their right to resolve matters by majority vote. 

And it was the test of these principles of democracy which kept me focused on the Ohio election – because these were the same principles that Oregonians affirmed in 1998, when we passed Measure 63, known as the Defense of Democracy Act.

The immediate issue then was taxes, not abortion. Following a series of successful tax cutting measures, anti-tax activist Bill Sizemore was planning to go to the ballot with a proposal to require that any future increases or adjustments in taxes be subject to a 60% threshold for passage (the same threshold proposed by the Ohio Legislature’s Measure 1).

For Sizemore, the goal was to lock in place his controversial tax policies and make it more difficult for future voters to repeal or modify what proved to be harmful or unworkable. For the Ohio Legislature, the goal was to make it more difficult for the voters to block the stringent anti-abortion restrictions they have enacted.  

The common threads here should be obvious. One is the that those with power in the moment are often all too willing to keep others from exercising their power in the future. The other is that access to the ballot and the will of majorities are a potent force to combat the tyranny of those who use their power in opposition to the will of the people. 

I was one of the architects of Oregon’s Measure 63, which responded to Sizemore’s attempts to limit the power of future voters. Measure 63 required that any measure which proposes to establish a supermajority threshold for enactment of any ballot measure on any issue must be approved by the same supermajority. Fair’s fair. If you want to set a 60% standard for voter enactments in the future, you have to live by your own proposed rules get 60% of the voters to approve it. 

Oregon voters agreed. Measure 63 is now part of our state constitution. And no one has attempted to limit our citizen’s ability to enact laws by majority vote since then.

Now, 25 years later, Ohioans have defended the same principle and, by so doing, reminded their conservative legislators who’s in charge. 

Lessons learned.

One is practical. When a gerrymandered legislature tries to foist its extremist views on a statewide electorate that is overwhelmingly opposed to its manipulations, it’s important to have a mechanism for the people to rein them in.

The other is principled. When the fundamental principles of our democracy are challenged, voters in blue and red states alike, turn out and respond. Even when cross-pressured by hot button issues like taxes and abortion, they see the bigger picture and affirm our common commitment to have the final say in their governance and resolve issues by majority rule.

Nearly 70% of Ohio voters rejected Measure 1, far above the 53% who told pollsters last year that they support the protection of abortion rights. So, yes, the vote on Measure 1 was about more than abortion.

 At a time when voting rights and our election processes have become more politicized in recent elections, it’s reassuring that Americans remain strongly united in defense of a bedrock principle of our democracy.  


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Tim Nesbitt

Tim Nesbitt, a former union leader in Oregon, served as an adviser to Governors Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber and later helped to design Measure 98 in 2016, which provided extra, targeted funding for Oregon’s high schools.