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Local Governments Are Blocking Ballot Initiatives at the Behest of Corporations

We must see the government-corporate alliance for what it is and take bold action to put an end to the charade.

Voters wait in line to cast their ballot for early voting at the Franklin County Board of Elections, on the eve of the U.S. midterm elections, in Columbus, Ohio, on November 7, 2022.

In 1979, the children’s educational television series Schoolhouse Rock! broadcast a now-classic episode titled “Three Ring Government” about the three branches of the U.S. government — executive, legislative and judicial.

“No one part can be more powerful than the other,” proclaimed the narrator, who explains that our system of government comes with “checks and balances” — each branch watches the other so no one becomes tyrannical.

The episode is quite entertaining, but facile. In truth our government is more like a three-ring circus — one that makes a mockery of democracy.

In reality the system of “checks and balances” guards against the power of the people.

Local Officials Block Direct Democracy

Community Rights Lane County, an all-volunteer community rights group in Oregon, has been attempting to challenge decades-long spraying of toxic herbicides on forest ecosystems by helicopter, a practice that spreads poison indiscriminately throughout the community. Community Rights Lane County members sought to ban the spraying in order to protect the people and local habitats.

All three local branches of government — county commissioners, the county clerk’s office and the full Oregon judiciary — have done nothing but deny the rights and will of the people in Lane County in favor of corporate profits.

In Ohio, people in multiple communities have been organizing to stand up to the fossil fuel industry and big agricultural corporations for the past decade by writing new laws and then getting their fellow citizens to sign petitions to put these rights-based laws on the ballot for a vote.

Against the democratic will of citizens, state and local elected officials, including local boards of elections and the courts, have repeatedly trampled on the political rights of Ohioans. Over 15 times in eight different communities, duly qualified home rule charter initiatives were blocked from appearing on the ballot.

And in Georgia for the last two years the resistance effort has engaged in everything from protest to political appeals to direct action to stop the construction of a police training facility in Atlanta known as Cop City. Since June a referendum has been circulated by a coalition called The Vote to Stop Copy City, which asks voters in Atlanta whether the training facility should be built. And despite a paltry petitioning period of 60 days to gather 77,000 valid signatures, the City of Atlanta has filed a lawsuit to block the question from the ballot, thereby denying the will of the people.

The Courts Won’t Save Us

We’ve been told that ballot initiatives are how citizens can bypass representative government and directly decide issues that matter most to them. But in truth, local governments have concocted and instituted hurdles to frustrate and block the people from gathering signatures and ballot access even when they meet all the legal requirements.

In the spring of 2022, the Oregon Supreme Court refused to hear cases regarding two duly qualified measures denied ballot access — one addressing a proposed aerial toxic spray ban and the other asserting Lane County residents’ right to local self-determination. Even though all the rules were followed, a corporate lawsuit asserted that the initiatives didn’t pass a particular administrative legal test for legislation and the lower courts bought that argument (one that had never applied to a local initiative before).

When it came time for the state Supreme Court to protect not only the political rights of the people but a state constitutional right, they issued a one-sentence response: “The court has considered the petitions for review and orders that they be denied.” So, with the stroke of a pen, the court wiped clean six years of Lane County citizens’ efforts to utilize a right the Oregon Constitution purports to protect — the people’s ability to make and adopt laws in their best interest.

In Ohio, the reality is even more convoluted as the Supreme Court there doesn’t seem to be able to make up its mind whether to protect or deny direct democracy. In 2017, they agreed with the Board of Elections and kept a “Fair and Free Election Bill of Rights” and “Water Protection Bill of Rights” off the ballot. That same year, they kept three county charter initiatives off the ballot as well. Then in 2019, when Toledo residents collected signatures for two completely unrelated issues, building a new jail and the “Lake Erie Bill of Rights,” conflict occurred. The elected representatives were in favor of the jail initiative, and the court allowed that on the ballot, leaving the county Board of Elections without a way to move one to the ballot and keep the other one off.

What the people of Ohio discovered over those 10 years is that the rules change depending on what the initiative is and who is bringing it forward. What industry learned is that state preemption is their best friend. The Ohio legislature has preemption laws regarding both oil and gas drilling and now a ban on Rights of Nature legislation. With the swift passage of these state laws, the people’s constitutional rights to petition their government and pass laws directly are wiped away without consent of the people. (So much of this denial of direct democracy has taken place in Ohio you can read a collection of stories written by the people directly affected in the book Death by Democracy.)

Toward Direct Democracy

Atlanta, Ohio and Oregon are not alone as these kinds of judicial as well as legislative actions making it harder to qualify initiatives are happening in a number of other states.

What community rights advocates and others who have worked to buck a rotten system have proven over and over is that democracy does not actually exist in the places where we live. Democracy has been made illegal.

It’s time for the government-corporate circus not just to leave town, but to be shuttered permanently. We don’t need more mind-rotting entertainment; we need collective, focused action to address a multitude of community, individual and environmental needs that are a direct result of the way that the corporate-state has been operating. We need to fight our way out of that system. We need to stop legitimizing its existence.

If we truly believe in the direct legislative powers of the people, then we must see the government-corporate alliance for what it is and be willing to take bold action to put an end to the charade. We need to institute systems of governance that support and advocate for people, communities and the environment. We must be willing to fight for and create real democracy, where the people’s will is respected, protected, enforced and upheld. We all have a moral responsibility to protect the places in which we live, especially when our government officials won’t.

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