Tish O’Dell
Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, Ohio Community Organizer

Kai Huschke
Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, Northwest and Hawaii Community Organizer

MERCERSBURG, PA: It is known that corporations use massive campaign spending to try to influence how people vote. But it gets worse: they are also determining what gets voted on altogether.

This summer, Williams County, Ohio, residents gathered sufficient signatures to place a new county charter – or local “constitution” – on the November 5, 2019 ballot. The charter would stop efforts to privatize the Michindoh Aquifer, recognize rights of the aquifer, rights of local residents to clean water, and elevate those rights above the “rights” of corporations. However, based on an arbitrary technicality, the Ohio Supreme Court took the side of the Ohio Farm Bureau and the local board of elections, and refused to put the measure on the ballot.

Such gate keeping is not unique to Williams County. Similar dynamics are unfolding across the nation.

Last year, a statewide “millionaire’s tax” to fund public education and transportation was not allowed a vote in Massachusetts, after a lawsuit was filed by the Massachusetts High Technology Council. An Arizona ballot measure to raise taxes on the wealthy to fund public education was also removed from the November 2018 ballot, after a lawsuit was filed by a member of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce board of directors. Both ballot initiatives had gathered sufficient signatures.

In Ohio, local boards of elections, the secretary of state, and Supreme Court have also taken the side of corporate lobbies – including American Petroleum Institute, Ohio Oil and Gas Association, and Ohio Chamber of Commerce – to remove 14 ballot initiatives since 2015 that elevate local democracy and Rights of Nature above corporate privileges. All 14 measures had gathered sufficient signatures.

Williams County petitioners are now joining an ongoing federal civil rights lawsuit that challenges these tactics.

“This gate keeping is a type of voter suppression that is attempting to quash the ideas, concepts and ultimately laws that we need to effectively address the current climate and democracy crises,” said Tish O’Dell, Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) Ohio community organizer. “The state and corporate lawyers want to tell us what we are allowed to vote on. We must not be bullied into silence and inaction – the future is depending on us.”

Other communities working with CELDF are facing similar obstruction in Oregon and Washington, related to issues including corporate aerial pesticide spraying, corporate agriculture, industrial water projects, and worker rights.

In Washington, sustainable water use initiatives sponsored by Save Tacoma Water were kept off the 2016 ballot after challenges were filed by the local economic development board and chamber of commerce. The Washington Supreme Court and United States Supreme Court refused to hear the case on appeal.

“As people cast their ballots this election day, do they realize those ballots have been corrupted? Ballots across the country, for years now, have been censored to only allow ‘pre-approved’ issues,” said Kai Huschke, CELDF Northwest and Hawaii community organizer. “These actions violate the sacredness of the right to vote, and even worse, attempt to deny any semblance of democracy.”

More information:

A summary of actions taken against Ohio local democracy and Rights of Nature movements, in 2019:

Williams County’s Ohio Supreme Court case:

Ohio communities’ federal civil rights lawsuit:

Save Tacoma Water’s Supreme Court Petition:

About CELDF — Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) is building a movement for Community Rights and the Rights of Nature to advance democratic, economic, social, and environmental rights – building upward from the grassroots to the state, federal, and international level.

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