Local Politics: Anti-vaccine mandate bill comes with a side of gerrymandering

Ohio Republicans are caught in a pact that continues to empower the fringes, drowning out needed moderating voices

Craig Calcaterra
Protesters line the west side of 3rd Street in front of the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio on August 24, 2021. People were gathered to protest a number of topics associated with House Bill 248, referring to the Vaccine Choice and Anti-Discrimination Act that would be debated that day.

On November 18, the Republican majority in the Ohio House did what it had longed to do all year but had not been able to accomplish: it passed a bill to weaken vaccine requirements. It was able to do so this time around because, unlike previous, failed efforts, the vote on this bill — House Bill 218 — successfully married Republican legislators' two greatest loves: eschewing the advice of health experts and ensuring that the state remains as gerrymandered as possible. Indeed, it was only by bringing those toxic objectives together that each of them could be fully realized.  

H.B. 218 is a lot like previous Republican-sponsored anti-vaccine legislation in that it prohibits any Ohio entity — public or private — from requiring a person to show proof of vaccination against COVID to enter a space or receive a service. The bill also requires any employer, school or college that issues a vaccine requirement for employees or students to allow exemptions for medical, religious or other personal reasons. Personal reasons, it should be noted, which need only be set forth in a single written statement, which means that exemptions could be based on just about anything and would be effectively unverifiable. In essence, the bill would render existing COVID vaccine mandates toothless. 

H.B. 218 is not to be confused with H.B. 248, the so-called "Vaccine Choice and Anti-Discrimination Act," or H.B. 435, the so-called "Vaccine Fairness Act," each of which failed passage back in September. The former was "paused" when business lobbyists, including former Republican Congressman and current Ohio Chamber of Commerce CEO Steve Stivers, pushed back against it on behalf of business owners, who rather like being able to keep unvaccinated people out of their venues. Support for the latter, which was streamlined to eliminate reference to infectious diseases such as polio, measles and the flu, which have long been subject to non-controversial vaccine mandates, also petered out after it received the same sort of Chamber of Commerce-led pushback. 

The biggest difference among these bills is that, unlike the case with the unsuccessful H.B. 248 and H.B. 435, H.B. 218's supporters had leverage: the extremely gerrymandered map Republicans were dying to pass in order to ensure the GOP's heavy Congressional advantage in the state. Specifically, H.B. 218's supporters threatened to withhold votes for the recently passed Congressional map if the anti-vaccination bill was not also passed. There may not have been enough Ohio legislators who, in the normal course, wanted to stop people from being required to get COVID vaccines, but majorities for that proposition could be found as long as Republicans' greatest objective — maintaining their grip on power at any cost — could be achieved.

It makes sense, of course, that the champions of anti-vaccination laws and proponents of gerrymandering would need each other to be successful in the end. In fairly drawn districts Republicans could, at least theoretically, mount a viable campaign without transparently pandering to the sorts of extremist groups and conspiracy nuts who espouse anti-vaccine nonsense, demonize the work of experts, interfere with the will of businesses and make schools and communities less safe than they could be. When you ensure that the majority of districts sharply favor Republicans, however, you crowd out moderating voices and empower the fringes. 

Indeed, you empower them to the point where it'd be political suicide to legislate in a manner that would actually combat the ever-resilient pandemic and that would seek to prevent more people dying preventable deaths in our state. Ohio's past gerrymanders amplified the voices of these maniacs. And now these maniacs hold veto power over current and future gerrymanders. It's quite the pact Republicans have formed.   

H.B. 218 still has some hurdles to jump before it becomes law. Specifically, it must be passed by the Senate and signed by Gov. Mike DeWine. A couple of weeks ago such a thing seemed like a long shot. But the pro-pandemic caucus now knows that, if it must, it can coerce the support of those Republicans who might otherwise listen to Chamber of Commerce types or public health experts by threatening to buck the party's larger anti-democratic agenda. It now knows that, as long as it agrees to support the killing of democracy in this state, it can pass legislation that could lead to the preventable deaths of a great many people in this state, as well.

For Republicans, it's truly a win-win.