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What went wrong with the ballot issue to hike Ohio’s minimum wage? It depends on who you ask

A signature gatherer with Raise the Wage Ohio at the Statehouse.
Sarah Donaldson
Statehouse News Bureau
A signature gatherer with Raise the Wage Ohio at the Statehouse.

A coalition that wanted voters to raise Ohio’s minimum wage tried for months to gather signatures to get their amendment on the ballot in November, but said the monthslong drive fell short. Local advocates for higher wages said the effort is marred by dysfunction and mismanagement.

“Their mission statement really contradicted their actions,” said Evan Holt, a longtime restaurant worker who left Raise the Wage Ohio’s office in Cincinnati earlier this year.

High on turnover and low on cash

Last Wednesday, Raise the Wage Ohio announced it was short on a requirement for signatures in 44 of the state’s 88 counties. A national spokesperson for One Fair Wage said its Ohio effort was “very close” but would hold off on submitting anything for the November 2024 ballot.

For months, paid circulators and volunteers with Raise the Wage Ohio had been getting signatures to put a proposed constitutional amendment before voters.

The amendment would have boosted the minimum wage in the state for most workers to $12.75 per hour by 2025 and $15 per hour by 2026, and eventually gotten rid of the “subminimum” wage for some workers like servers and bartenders.

Holt—who ran for and lost a seat on Cincinnati City Council in 2021—worked two brief stints with Raise the Wage Ohio, leading canvassing efforts in Cincinnati and its suburbs. He left in early 2024, months before the July deadline, he said.

At first, he said it was a struggle to get anything in the office, from pins and shirts to printer ink.

“We were never getting these basic things that we needed,” Holt said.

Within a few months, Holt quit because of issues with a regional organizing director, who he said was fired a month later. He started again in October and then left again by early 2024, saying he felt frustrated with the way it was being led. Two canvassers managing the office in his absence eventually quit too, he said.

“This kind of general inconsistent direction that we were given—we were told one thing one week and then next week we're doing something different,” he said.

Mariah Ross, the initiative’s state director, did not answer a request for comment on Holt’s allegations.

Two days before signatures were due, the anti-gerrymandering organization Citizens Not Politicians was celebrating submitting nearly double the number of signatures needed in the Ohio Statehouse atrium. Volunteers with Raise the Wage Ohio lingered on the peripheral for a last-minute petition push.

Ben Kindel, Secretary of State Frank LaRose’s spokesperson, said his interactions were similarly “disorganized.” The office was told several different signature delivery times before Raise the Wage Ohio decided not to submit.

Rural organizing woes

Raise the Wage Ohio blamed some of their shortfalls on “violence and intimidation toward our low-wage worker of color canvassers, who were verbally abused and harassed,” according to a statement last Wednesday—the first time the potential issue had been highlighted publicly.

In an earlier interview, Ross said some of that alleged treatment came from law enforcement agencies, including the Darke and Preble County Sheriff’s Offices.

“They escorted them out, made sure they got in their car, and followed them until they left the county,” Ross said in an interview.

Both sheriffs rebutted those claims.

Darke County Sheriff Mark Whittaker said one of his men told a person circulating the petition to “move on” from a tent at the Versailles Poultry Days in mid-June but said they did not kick him out of the annual festival held at the village’s high school.

“The Darke County Sheriff’s Office did not escort anybody to the county line or throw anybody out of the county,” Whittaker said. “We would not do that.”

Preble County Sheriff Mark Simpson said it was the first time he’d heard of such an incident.

“If they were on a public sidewalk or something, they could stand there all day long and do what they want,” Simpson said in an interview.

Circulating a petition is a right guaranteed under the First Amendment, but it can get dicey in places that are not entirely public. It's not soliciting to gather signatures outside of a festival or fair held on public grounds, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, but organizers can prevent canvassers from doing so within the event.

Holt said his canvassers never made it outside of the greater Cincinnati area. He was told the office would eventually get buses to rural counties, although that didn't materialize before he left.

“In terms of people who would write us off and say they're not interested, it wasn't ‘rural Republicans,’” Holt said. “I found it to be more, kind of, complacent suburbanite folks. Your Mason crowd, who it becomes more of a class of issue.”

Nothing, to his knowledge, crossed into threats of violence under his watch, he said.

Ross said Raise the Wage Ohio did not file anything officially on the violence and intimidation claims. When asked, she did not offer more details about or evidence of the alleged Darke and Preble County incidents.

What comes next?

Raise the Wage Ohio will try again for 2025, a year likely to see significantly lower turnout. Although they are eyeing a later ballot, they want to submit all of their signatures by the end of this summer so that fewer are invalidated, Ross said.

“We don't want to waste the work that has gone into this, from all the people who are canvassing for us to all the people who have signed to all the money that has been invested,” she said.

Holt said he wasn't shocked when he saw the organization didn't make the ballot. He did feel discouraged.

“I really believe in it,” Holt said. “I just don't know why it had to be the way it was.”

Since 1996, of the 28 minimum wage increase proposals in states across the country, 26 have won.

Sarah Donaldson covers government, policy, politics and elections for the Ohio Public Radio and Television Statehouse News Bureau. Contact her at sdonaldson@statehousenews.org.