The Topline returns

Democracy Examined

The Topline

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Welcome back to The Topline!

After a long hiatus, I’m happy to report that the Topline is relaunching, now under the management of the Renew Democracy Initiative (RDI). As you might remember, the Topline was a part of the Renew America Foundation, which ceased operating in May, thus suspending the publication.

With RDI, we will keep offering you the Topline you came to expect with a couple updates: we will publish every other week on Thursdays, and we’ll lead with a deep dive on a feature story. You can expect a few changes as we go forward and integrate into RDI, but the Topline is here to stay.

We’re really glad to be back and excited for all that we have in store. And, as always, we’re delighted that you’re a part of the Topline community. —Melissa Amour, Managing Editor

The War on Direct Democracy

Ohio voters enshrined abortion access into the state constitution last month after voting “yes” on a ballot initiative that ultimately passed with a 57 percent majority. They almost never got the chance. For the last few months, the Republican-controlled state legislature and its allies were working to make ballot initiatives harder to initiate and more difficult to pass.

The Ohio Republicans’ actions fit into a larger trend playing out across the country: ballot initiatives supported by Democrats keep passing, and Republican state legislatures are doing their best to make sure they don’t. The battle to raise the barriers to elements of direct democracy is raging.


What You Should Know

After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, a trigger law banning abortion after about 8 weeks of pregnancy came into effect in Ohio.

Last summer, Ohio Republicans caught wind of a ballot initiative concerning abortion led by a few reproductive rights groups that was gaining support across the state. Republicans called an August special election to raise the threshold for changes of the state constitution from a simple majority to a 60 percent supermajority, describing it as the responsible thing to do:

“It is a much lower threshold than the one enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, but it is designed to build upon the American tradition that protects the rights of all, not just the frenzied mob, special interests, and the wealthy. —Matt Huffman, President of the Ohio Senate

Ohioans said no way. They rejected the attempt to make direct democracy more challenging, and the abortion question remained on the November ballot as is. Despite some questionable last-minute shenanigans, Ohio voters then approved Issue 1, enshrining abortion and reproductive rights in the state’s constitution. Almost immediately after the election, several Ohio Republican lawmakers proposed stripping the courts of the authority to interpret the new constitutional amendment.

“Issue 1 doesn’t repeal a single Ohio law, in fact, it doesn’t even mention one. The amendment’s language is dangerously vague and unconstrained, and can be weaponized to attack parental rights or defend rapists, pedophiles, and human traffickers.” —State Rep. Bill Dean, The Hill

Ohio’s tug-of-war over direct democracy is playing out in states all across the country.

“Politicians in several of these states, as in Ohio, have been trying to make initiatives harder to pass—most egregiously in Missouri, Arizona, North Dakota, Florida, and Wisconsin.” Alice Clapman, Senior Counsel, Brennan Center for Justice

And while this might be making news in 2023, the effort has been increasing for years.

“During the 2021 legislative session, the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center monitored 146 bills aimed at restricting or abolishing the ballot measure process, a 500% increase from the 33 bills introduced in 2017.” —Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, Democracy Docket


How We Got Here

Back in October of 2020, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) posted a four-word tweet that started a firestorm:

“We’re not a democracy.” —Mike Lee, US Senator from Utah

As he went on to explain, America is a constitutional republic, and “rank democracy” is a threat to the human condition. He does have a point: the Founders’ own misgivings about the radical concept of democracy helped drive the development of the delicate system of representative government laid out in the US Constitution.

But in recent years, reasonable concerns about mob rule have devolved into outright attacks on democracy itself, including from the outer fringes of the Republican Party.

“Famous Chinese leaders like Mao Zedong and Mikhail Gorbachev loved democracy because democracy is a step toward socialism, which is a step towards communism.” —Loren Culp, Washington gubernatorial candidate, Slate

Critics of ballot initiatives are now describing them as tools working against the best interest of a public that doesn’t understand what it’s voting for.

“Unfortunately, we were dramatically outspent by dark money billionaires from California to New York, and the giant ‘for sale’ sign still hangs on Ohio’s constitution.” —Frank LaRose, Ohio Secretary of State, Associated Press

But what more is at play here? Well, it seems that Republican legislatures are pushing agendas out of step with the median voter. Voters might have sent them to the statehouse, but they don’t always like all of their policies once they get there:

On abortion, Republican legislatures continue to push restrictions while:

“A record-high 69 percent of Americans say abortion should generally be legal in the first three months of pregnancy” Gallup

On the minimum wage, two-thirds of voters across the country support a $15-per-hour minimum. In that context, it shouldn’t be a surprise that in 2020 61 percent of Floridians voted to have the minimum wage hiked to $15 over the objections of the Republican state majority… which they simultaneously re-elected. Go figure.

What People Are Saying

On the Left, direct democracy advocates are celebrating the Ohio vote as a win.

“People care about their right to govern themselves. And Ohio voters have shown that direct democracy remains a vital tool for voters to make themselves heard over the noise of moneyed and powerful special interests.” Alice Clapman, Senior Counsel, Brennan Center for Justice

While on the Right, the Ohio vote and other prominent defeats are calling into question Republicans’ abortion strategy heading into the 2024 election.

“This should be a major wake-up call on the abortion issue for us… The only way to expose the Democrats’ support for late-term abortion is for us to articulate a more empathetic, moderate approach on the issue.” —Stephen Lawson, Republican consultant, NBC News

For Greg Jaffe of The Washington Post, ballot initiatives are an opportunity to make democracy function better than our partisan landscape would otherwise allow.

“Today, Congress is so divided and ideologically polarized that it struggles to execute its most basic responsibilities. State legislatures suffer a different malady. They’re often so dominated by a single party that the majority can push through its agenda with little regard for what most voters might actually prefer.” —Greg Jaffe, The Washington Post

  • Ohio Senate President Who Promised ‘Revolving Door’ of Efforts to Defeat Issue 1 Now Calls No Anti-Abortion Ballot Measures in 2024 —
  • Oregon Judge Says Voter-Approved Gun Law Violates State Constitution —The Hill
  • Oklahoma Voters Are at Risk of Losing the Long-held Right to Override the Legislature —The Oklahoman

Hey Topline readers, you remember the drill. We want to hear your reactions to today’s stories. We’ll include some of your replies in this space in our next issue of The ToplineClick here to share your take, and don’t forget to include your name and state. We’re looking forward to hearing from you again!

  • Out in Colorado: In landmark decision, Colorado Supreme Court rules Trump is disqualified from presidency for Jan. 6 riot —CBS News
  • The plot thickens: Congressman Scott Perry told to hand over hundreds of texts and emails to FBI in 2020 election probe —Associated Press
  • A troubling trend: Only about half of young Americans say democracy is best form of government —The Hill
  • Keep an eye on this: To protect democracy in the deepfake era, we need to bring in the voices of those defending it at the frontlines —Council on Foreign Relations
  • Give this a listen: Is America retreating from world leadership? —The Bulwark
  • Guatemala: Guatemala’s anti-corruption leader-to-be could be prevented from taking office, deepening migration concerns for U.S. —The Conversation
  • India: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party suspends 141 parliamentary members —NBC News
  • Russia: Anti-war candidate Duntsova applies to run in election against Vladimir Putin —Reuters
  • Venezuela: U.S. releases ally of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in exchange for 10 American prisoners —Axios
  • Yemen: Who are the Houthis? The militia firing on ships in the Red Sea —The New York Times

Let us know what you thought of the relaunch of the Topline!