The Cincinnati Election: Is This 2015 or 1915?

“What goes around, comes around” is a hoary slice of hackneyed analysis, but it rings true when comparing the Cincinnati election ballots for 1915 and 2015:

  • Referendum on congressional districting? Check.
  • Statewide votes on controlled substances? Check.
  • Potential for one statewide issue to contradict another? Check.
  • Bond issue for Cincinnati parks? Check.
  • Election battles over monopolies? Check.

While the parallels between 1915 and 2015 look eerily similar on the surface, a deeper dive into the details finds some significant differences.

The most similar initiative involved statewide redistricting. In 1915, Ohioans were asked to vote on a measure officially titled the Ohio Congressional District Apportionment Referendum. It was also known as the Sprague Act Veto Referendum, in recognition of its author, William R. Sprague, Republican of Portsmouth. Opponents called it the Sprague Gerrymander Referendum because it would have repealed a year-old redistricting plan concocted by the Democrats and replaced it with a plan more favorable to Republicans. The Cleveland Plain Dealer [3 September 1915] smelled a rat:

“It is a gerrymander, as the term is used to mean a districting plan for partisan advantage. So was the measure the Sprague Act repealed. So was the measure repealed by the measure the Sprague Act repealed. Some day, perhaps, this matter of redistricting the states for congressional purposes will be taken off the partisan bargain counter. But one sees small promise of it now.”

Or a century later, for that matter.

In 1915, Ohioans were asked to decide two issues on a controlled substance. Unlike 2015, when the substance in question was marijuana, the 1915 issues involved alcohol. The Ohio Prohibition on Alcohol Amendment would have made the manufacture and sale of alcohol illegal in Ohio. A second measure, officially the Ohio Alcohol Transportation Licenses Referendum, was known as the McDermott Act Veto Referendum. This initiative would have significantly changed the system used to regulate liquor licenses in Ohio by shifting responsibility out of Columbus and into dozens of local districts, promoting local prohibition.

Although not obviously tied to alcohol, a third ballot issue, called the “Stability League Amendment,” would have prevented defeated statewide ballot issues from being re-introduced until six years had passed. It was no coincidence that the prohibition forces had introduced a defeated prohibition amendment every year for several years by 1915. If passed, this measure might have set Prohibition back a decade in Ohio.

In Cincinnati, voters were asked to support a bond issue that would have raised $1.25 million for Cincinnati Parks. Proponents of the issue claimed it would reduce juvenile delinquency by creating more playgrounds to attract young people away from streets and alleys into fresh air and sunshine.

Gertrude Leder of Evanston was among a group of schoolchildren who spoke in favor of the 1915 Cincinnati Parks bond issue at a rally in Lytle Park.
Gertrude Leder of Evanston was among a group of schoolchildren who spoke in favor of the 1915 Cincinnati Parks bond issue at a rally in Lytle Park.

Cincinnati Post, 30 October 1915; Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

The monopoly matter was a little more complicated in 1915 than the statewide issue before Ohio voters this year. For one thing, the monopoly question was strictly local, not statewide. In addition, voters in 1915 were not asked their opinion about monopolies, but about some specific issues involving the local monopoly known as the Cincinnati Gas & Electric Company. In 1915, Cincinnati was still under the direction of George B. “Boss” Cox, and Boss Cox was beholden to “General” Andrew Hickenlooper, who was president of Cincinnati Gas & Electric and also president of the Cincinnati Street Railway system.

The mayoral candidate of the Cox machine was George Puchta, Assistant U.S. Treasury Secretary. The Democrats ran attorney Charles Sawyer. The progressive Cincinnati Post supported Sawyer, who opposed a fee increase for the city’s natural gas monopoly and also opposed high fees for the street car monopoly. Puchta took no public position on either issue, but his silence implied support for the monopolies.

How did Cincinnati voters respond in 1915?

The Cincinnati election returns show a huge victory for the “Wets,” the opponents of Prohibition. Prohibition was defeated within city limits by a vote of 20,000 for Prohibition and 80,000 against. Cincinnati also defeated the McDermott Referendum. On the statewide level, Prohibition lost by 50,000 votes and many commentators noted that this strong victory was still narrower than it had been at the last election. The McDermott Referendum was trounced across the state. This strong victory for the Wets would be wiped away when Ohio ratified the 18th Amendment on 7 January 1919.

The “Stability League” referendum to limit the reintroduction of defeated ballot issues actually won by a big margin in Cincinnati, despite strong opposition from the Cincinnati Enquirer, but it fell 35,000 votes short at the state level.

Cincinnatians supported their park system in a big way, voting 47,000 to 33,000 in favor of the bond issue. One result was the creation of Mount Airy Forest.

George Puchta rode this election into the mayor’s office where he supported higher gas rates and streetcar fares.

While Cincinnati only narrowly defeated the Sprague Gerrymander, opposition was stronger across the state and the issue went down in defeat.

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities

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