In Ohio, Democrats are trying to add abortion protections to the state constitution through a ballot initiative. But Republicans are attempting to block the move in the political bellwether state by raising the threshold for a ballot initiative to succeed.
In an August 8 special election, voters will decide whether ballot initiatives need to pass with 60 percent of the vote instead of the current simple majority; this vote takes place before Ohioans head to the polls in November for the abortion measure. That could make all the difference for abortion rights in the state: A USA Today/Suffolk University survey that polled 500 likely voters in July found that 58% supported a constitutional amendment that would add abortion protections. An Ohio Northern University poll of registered voters conducted in July found that neither side had majority support—with 42.4% approving of Issue 1, the measure to increase the passing margin, and 41% disapproving.
Abortion is currently legal in Ohio until fetal viability, around 22 to 24 weeks of pregnancy, but isn't protected by the state constitution. The state enacted an abortion ban that kicked in at around six weeks of pregnancy after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year but a lower court issued a stay; that ruling is being appealed. The proposed constitutional amendment would preserve the ability for abortion to occur until viability.
Here's what to know about the fight over Ohio's proposed ballot initiative.
What the abortion ballot initiative says
The proposed amendment to codify abortion rights in the state constitution would ensure a "fundamental right to reproductive freedom" with "reasonable limits". Restrictions would apply after a fetus' viability outside the womb, which was the standard under Roe v. Wade.
Abortion-rights activists collected more than 700,000 signatures to secure a November 7 ballot initiative. As of July 25, Secretary of State Frank LaRose said nearly 496,000 of those were valid signatures, which was enough to put the amendment to a vote.
Support for Issue 1
Issue 1 is the separate measure being voted on Aug. 8 that would raise the threshold to pass a ballot initiative from a simple majority to 60 percent. It would also require signatures to be collected in all 88 counties, instead of 44, and eliminate the 10-day grace period to ensure all signatures are valid.
LaRose previously said at a Seneca County dinner for Lincoln Day that the measure “is 100% about keeping a radical, pro-abortion amendment out of our constitution,” but later told the Associated Press that the comment was taken out of context. Republican state Rep. Brian Stewart, who introduced the measure, framed the effort as a way to keep Ohio a "pro-life" state in a memo to his Republican colleagues, CBS News reported.
Republicans say Issue 1 will keep special interest groups from holding undue sway over Ohio’s politics. They point, in particular, to how casinos cashed in on a 2009 ballot initiative to legalize gambling. “Ohioans don't want corporate special interests to litter our state constitution with guaranteed profit making schemes the way that the casino industry has done,” says Mark Weaver, a Republican strategist and ad maker for the Vote Yes campaign for Issue 1. Allowing for a higher vote threshold encourages bipartisan cooperation, Weaver says: “When you can pass something with 50% plus one, it's possible for one party or one ideology to dominate the policies." Supporters of Issue 1 also point out that the U.S. Constitution requires a two-thirds vote in Congress to propose an amendment.
There is a lot of out-of-state money in Ohio regarding Issue 1 funneling in from both sides. Illinois billionaire and GOP mega donor Richard Uihlein has spent more than $4 million to push for a ‘yes’ vote and assist Save Our Constitution, which raised $4.8 million and spent $1.6 million, according to Cleveland.com and other local news reports. On the other side, One Person One Vote has raised $14. 8 million and spent $10.4 million to try to defeat Issue 1, according to Cleveland.com.
Bob Clegg, an Ohio-based GOP strategist, points out that even if Democrats succeed in adding abortion protections to the state constitution in November, Republicans could force another ballot initiative vote since they control both chambers of the state legislature by significant margins. “It could be a very short-lived victory,” Clegg says. “My big fear about all of this is that in Ohio we may start legislating by constitutional amendment,” Clegg says. “The constitution should be there to dictate how the government is run… It’s a process document. It’s not a policy document.”
The simple majority requirement and citizenship ballot initiative has been in place in Ohio since 1912, and was first instituted as a response to rampant government corruption. Republicans’ attempts to change the voting threshold ahead of a key abortion vote could backfire, says Susan Burgess, a political science professor at Ohio University. “Generally speaking, people don't tend to like changing the process midstream," she says. "And when you pair that with potentially taking away a group of peoples’ rights, that is a very dangerous place for Republicans to be.”
What’s at stake?
If Issue 1 passes, it could affect much more than abortion rights in the state. “Conflict about abortion is spilling over into areas unrelated to abortion because if Ohioans voted for this, it would change their ability to do direct democracy on any issue,” says Mary Ruth Ziegler, law professor at UC Davis.
Kayla Griffin, Ohio state director of All Voting Is Local Action and an opponent of Issue 1, worries that the measure could affect everything from minimum wage to fair maps. Democrats and voting advocates argue that citizen-led ballot initiatives are key to combating gerrymandering by more accurately capturing the popular will. “Ohioans can use the citizen-ballot initiative process as a measure of last resort because Ohio is so gerrymandered,” Griffin says. “To say that only 40% of the state will actually be able to determine what happens with the majority of the state is egregious.” (In June, the U.S. Supreme Court directed Ohio's top court to reassess the legality of the state's congressional districts. Republican state lawmakers had argued in appeals that the Ohio Supreme Court had wrongfully struck down GOP-drawn U.S. House districts. Last June, that court rejected a second map drawn by Republicans as gerrymandered and sent it back for a third attempt.)
Citizen-led ballot measures have become increasingly used by abortion rights’ supporters to preserve access as state legislatures enact bans. Six states had abortion-related measures on the ballot in 2022. All six were victories for abortion-rights advocates, including those in more conservative states such as Kansas and Kentucky. In most cases, they won by a margin of less than 60%. In California, Michigan, and Vermont, voters approved ballot measures codifying abortion rights into the state constitution. Ballot initiatives restricting access failed in Kansas, Kentucky, and Montana.
Griffin worries that other states will follow suit with making it harder for ballot initiatives to succeed. “If Ohio can change the law on how a person accesses the ballot initiative, you better believe places like Florida and Georgia and Texas, are also going to try to change their laws to do the same,” she says.
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