Unlike most states, Ohio’s population growth has stagnated in recent decades. While the U.S. population grew by 24 percent between 1990 and 2010, Ohio’s population grew by only 6 percent. This trend is predicted to continue: Between 2010 and 2040, Ohio’s population will grow by only 7 percent, while the country will grow by 31 percent. Also unlike other states, Ohio’s growth between 1990 and 2010 was not been particularly diverse: While the nation experienced a 25 percentage point growth in people of color, Ohio only experienced a 6 point increase.
To explain the state’s stagnating growth, many point to Ohio’s economic turmoil: While the U.S. experienced a 25 percent growth in jobs between 1990 and 2010, Ohio experienced a mere 9 percent growth—the fifth lowest rate of all states. And while wages increased by 17 percent nationwide, working Ohioans experienced a smaller increase of 11 percen. Indeed, a lack of economic opportunities has led to what some call an "exodus" of Ohio’s young people to other states, leaving behind an aging population and perpetuating the cycle of growth stagnation and a shrinking economic pie.
Much of this distress is from the decline of manufacturing—a national phenomenon that hit Ohio particularly hard considering it was once the heart of industrial America. The legacy of manufacturing can be seen in the geography of the state: Ohio’s eight major metro regions—the "Big Eight"—each started as company towns formed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (save the capital of Columbus. Now, the companies and the local resources they provided— jobs but also local philanthropy and coordinated civic leadership—have mostly gone. What is left is a state made up of a collection of what one interviewee called "city states," which largely operate independently with their own demographic and political nuances.
So in the context of these conditions, how do the arenas of governance play out in Ohio? While Ohio practically defines "a purple state" in terms of voter preferences, Republicans currently hold the majority in the state legislature because of gerrymandering that favors the GOP. Because of Republican control, Ohio’s progressives have mostly abandoned pursuing change at the state level and largely focus on local matters. That said, Ohio’s ballot measure system is one path progressives can pursue to impact state-level decision making—and in November 2015, 71 percent of Ohioan voters backed a measure that amended the state constitution so as to ban partisan redistricting and establish a bipartisan (but not a non-partisan) redistricting commission.
While redistricting might not be as much of a roadblock to progressive governance moving forward, another major challenge in Ohio’s electoral arena is the resurgent attack on voter rights. Since 2010, Ohio was one of the 16 states that passed new voting restrictions. Specifically, the state’s legislators cut early voting by eliminating "Golden Week," in which voters could register and vote in one go, and changed absentee voting rules to make it more difficul. These decisions increase the barriers to voting and disproportionately impact low-dincome people, people of color, students, and seniors.
Voters in Ohio waited an average of 10 minutes during the 2012 presidential election. Ohio is tied for 25th lowest in terms of wait times at the polls.
Ohio has strict voter ID laws
Voters in Ohio may vote as an absentee without providing an excuse.
Voters in Ohio may not vote early (before election day).
Out of political gridlock at the state level, the dismal economic conditions, and the challenges within the electoral arena, a burgeoning progressive movement comprised of lower-income and people of color communities and their corresponding organizations is growing and fighting for change. Communities are reckoning with the reality that manufacturing is truly gone, unions do not have the power they once had, and new solutions are needed to create a viable and vibrant future for Ohio. Part of this new approach is building grassroots power outside of the workplace, but it is also about bridging across regions, rather than staying within siloed "city states."
One of the efforts taking up this charge is the Ohio Organizing Collaborative (OOC). The OOC is a statewide organization uniting community organizations, faith- based groups, labor unions, and policy advocates in and across the "Big Eight" in the pursuit of social, racial, and economic justic. Understanding the immense challenges, particularly in Ohio’s electoral arena, the OOC is spearheading an integrated voter engagement (IVE) program in which it "focuses on both short-term transactional goals of the current electoral cycle and long-term transformational goals related to leadership development of staff, volunteers, and voters." Despite the right-wing attacks on voter rights, the OOC and its partners are mobilizing Black and Latino voters—who can have the most barriers to voting—and just last year, using an IVE approach, they registered over 29,000 new voter.
In Ohio, the state of the legislative arena, the electoral arena, and the economy loom large. But there are seeds of innovation in other arenas—particularly the judicial and communications arenas—that may help, while the administrative and corporate arenas are receiving little attention. Part of shoring up the arenas will mean developing progressive leaders who can thread between these arenas, as well as between party Democrats, progressive policy advocates, and progressive community organizers. Ohio is a state caught in the economic and political cross wires of our nation and building toward progressive governance will require a long-term strategy that makes space for its especially unique, and sometimes bleak, circumstances.