It takes nearly three hours to travel from Ashtabula, Ohio to Columbus.
It takes over two hours to get from Cleveland, the second most populous city in Ohio, to the state capital – the same amount of time it takes for one to travel from the Appalachian city of Marietta to Columbus.
And in order to testify in the statehouse, one not only has to worry about how long it would take to get to the heart of Columbus, but they must also look (and pay) for gas and parking or plan around public transportation (if it is available), plan travel around traffic patterns and rush hour nuances, take time off from work, find and secure childcare, write their testimony, submit it in advance, and so much more. And all of this highly depends on the hopes that the often-changing schedules of the Ohio House and Senate Committees do not stray too far off course.
All of this, in the middle of a global pandemic – where one has to step into a statehouse in which mask protocols are rarely respected or followed by many and several lawmakers have tested positive for COVID-19 over the course of the pandemic in order to engage with the legislative process and testify about issues that they care deeply about.
One must question – is this truly a democracy? Is the Statehouse not also the peoples’ house?
Of course we elect our politicians, but when it comes to individual bills, we have the right to show up and testify for or against them, because the people that represent us will never align with us completely or always be one of the ultimate deciding factors that determines whether a bill passes or not. And quite frankly, like our fundamental right to vote, being able to testify is a right, not a privilege. They are both ways for us to have our voices heard as active participants in this democracy.
So why is it so hard for us Ohioans to testify in our statehouse during a pandemic?! Or any other time, for that matter?
Similar to the fact that while abortion may be legal, it is not accessible, there is very little doubt that while we are allowed to testify, it’s just not accessible or safe. Without any opportunities or provisions for Ohioans to provide virtual, oral testimony during legislative committee meetings, there is no outlet for individuals to engage in meaningful dialogue with lawmakers, or have healthy spirited debates about controversial bills, on anything from clean energy, to gun laws, to abortion access, to drug policy reform.
Without remote testimony, it becomes exceedingly difficult to participate in democracy. Especially for low-income Ohioans who lack the necessary means to travel. Especially for guardian Ohioans who cannot leave their children or their elderly/special needs parents and family members to fend for themselves at home. Especially for Ohioans who cannot put their only source of income at risk by missing a day of work. Especially for frontline Ohioans who cannot cancel a day’s worth of appointments or walk out on their patients for an extended period of time.
The list goes on and on – and it leaves us one glaring fact: testifying is limited to only a small percentage of us.
One must ask why – especially as every day Ohioans navigate their lives around poverty, inaccessible health care, and epidemics that are alarmingly killing women in their prime, with Black and brown Ohioans having to additionally live within the confines of institutional racism.
But, here’s the thing. The remedy to this is quite easy and lies in one simple thing: virtual testimony. And to note, there are no rules prohibiting virtual testimony for legislative hearings. Many other states have figured out how to do this, Ohio should be no different. It’s a common sense solution that, during this pandemic will not only protect civilians, but also those at the Statehouse. It is safe. It is equitable. And it allows ALL of our voices to be heard. This is exactly why the ACLU of Ohio and 74 other organizations signed on to a letter that urged Ohio lawmakers to provide virtual testimony opportunities as the pandemic persists.
It’s 2021. Why not use the technology we have readily accessible to once again ensure that We the People means ALL of us?
Editor's Note: after this was written, House Bill 55, a bill allowing virtual testimony while the state is under emergency order, was introduced in the Ohio House.