Hello, Ohio? It's Jim Crow.

Jim Crow is calling Ohio. It wants its old playbook back.
Credit: Edward Kimmel
Published:November 22, 2022
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Jim Crow is calling Ohio. It wants its old playbook back.

During the civil rights era, when courts and new laws eliminated the most blunt-force voter suppression instruments, Black voters began to register and vote in larger numbers. But as those numbers grew, Southern segregationists didn’t quit. They got more sophisticated. One of the most common tactics they chose was reconfiguring government and shifting power to keep it out of the reach of those newly registered Black voters.

How?

For one, they’d convert elections that had previously been held within individual districts into community-wide, at-large elections, diluting or eliminating the influence of Black voters. Or, if the more diverse electorate was on the verge of electing new officials—Black officials—they’d convert those positions into appointed ones, as opposed to elected. Problem solved.

Or if a Black candidate managed to break through and win an office, Segregationists would quickly pass laws to weaken the powers of that office or shift those powers to another office. In these ways, losing ground in elections didn’t stop them. Instead, they waged a rearguard battle to change laws and rules to maintain power despite setbacks. One of the most important roles the 1965 Voting Rights Act played was to give the DOJ and courts a tool to stop some of these maneuvers before they took effect.

Ancient history, right?

We wish. This power-shifting tactic is back in favor, with Ohio providing a sobering case study in real time. But you might ask, why would Ohio Republicans need to shift power? Didn’t the 2022 midterms provide a big night in Ohio?

Indeed ,they did. They won the Governor’s and other statewide races, the Senate race, and key court races. And they succeeded in forcing elections on federal and state legislative maps that violated Ohio’s Constitution.

But Ohio’s GOP suffered one surprising setback.

Republican-endorsed members of the Ohio School Board which sets policy for K-12 education in the state, including overseeing the Department of Education, spent the past year waging right-wing cultural battles. Ohio voters weren’t impressed, electing Democratic-endorsed candidates in three of the five school board seats up this year, including unseating two of the most outspoken incumbents. 

Those wins give Democratic-endorsed members seven of the 11 elected seats, which, due to a two-thirds majority rule, also give them the ability to stop any formal action from the broader board (there are also eight Governor appointees).

So how did the GOP respond in the only state races where they didn’t make gains? 

Within a week, even as late-arriving mail-in votes were still being counted, Ohio GOP legislative leaders rushed forward their first hearing on a bill to strip most of the powers from that new school board and hand them over to a proposed new education department directly appointed by the Governor—y’know a Republican ally. The board’s remaining roles would be limited. This all likely violates a 1953 Constitutional Amendment where Ohioans voted to separate the education function from the Governor’s office. Still, the GOP looks to be fast-tracking the change in the coming weeks.

Think about that. Ohio Republicans won almost every election they sought in the state. But in the one area they lost, they are already working to negate the effects of that loss. 

Outrageous and disturbing.

But beyond taking a page right out of the Jim Crow playbook, this reaction also amounts to another form of election denialism. In this instance, it's not by refusing to recognize a loss or seat newly elected officials, but by directly negating the impact of an election result—stymieing the will of the voters expressed only a week before.

And that’s also part of a broader pattern from recent years, which is why Ohio Republicans don’t hesitate to do it. Woe is Ohio, you might be thinking. But that’s the wrong response. Because while these anti-democratic moves are taking place in the Buckeye State, make no mistake, this is much bigger than Ohio. Ohio, as always, is a bellwether.

When Roy Cooper won the North Carolina governorship in 2016, the gerrymandered legislature immediately stripped significant power from the governor’s office, including duties over elections and higher education. Governor Cooper spent much of his first term battling to get some of those powers back.

In 2018, Wisconsin’s GOP did the same thing after Democrat Tony Evers won the governorship there, although some of those powers were later restored in court. 

In recent years, legislatures from Missouri to Maine, Florida to Ohio, even defied the results of state-wide referenda on a variety of issues.

The pattern is clear. Don’t like the outcome of an election? Just ignore it. Or even better, get ahead of it. Which gets us back to Ohio one last time.

In the 2022 elections, we all witnessed successful examples of direct democracy protecting abortion access in states such as Kentucky, Kansas, Michigan, and Montana. Michigan Democrats also had a banner year due to a prior referendum creating an independent districting commission.

Seeing this play out all around them, what new idea did Ohio’s GOP leaders also push last week beyond their school board putsch? A change in Ohio’s Constitution requiring that 60%, rather than a simple majority of voters, must approve any future attempts to amend the Constitution.

These leaders know that Ohioans too are pro-choice, anti-gerrymander and anti-extremist. They hear the loud calls in-state to organize petition drives on these issues. Fearing the majority exercising its will via referenda, Ohio’s GOP hopes to change the rules of referenda to head off those outcomes.

Ohio’s response to its one loss here, and pro-democracy wins in other states, is instructive. Despite their lack of success two weeks ago—in fact, because of their lack of success—those hard at work to subvert democracy anywhere will only double down in just these ways. They’ll learn from their losses, shift power to negate the damage, and change rules to keep those losses from happening again. And as they always do, they’ll model off one another’s handiwork. They’ll keep right on attacking democracy and its outcomes, often with added fervor and aggression.

So, what must those of us who value democracy do? Not get complacent after some 2022 success. Stay on offense. Double down in our fight for democracy. And prepare for the backlash, as well as the new forms that those attacks on democracy will take. Because as Ohio shows, they are already coming.

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