Ballot initiatives have proven a winning strategy for abortion rights activists – but Ohio Republicans want to make it harder for voters
‘The instinct from conservative lawmakers to make it harder for their voters to decide on the core issues that matter to them most is fundamentally an assault on voting rights.’ Photograph: Cristóbal Herrera/EPA
Ohio advocates hoping to replicate a string of abortion rights victories fear being stymied by Republican lawmakers who are attempting to make it harder to pass citizen-initiated constitutional amendments.
Ballot initiatives put directly to voters have proven a winning strategy for abortion rights activists since Roe v Wade was overturned this summer, with six referendums delivering favorable results for pro-choice advocates.
In Ohio, Republicans want to bring their own legislation, raising the threshold for successful ballot initiatives to 60%, up from the simple majority currently required to amend the state constitution.
“The instinct from conservative lawmakers to make it harder for their voters to decide on the core issues that matter to them most is fundamentally an assault on voting rights,” says Kellie Copeland, the executive director of the Fairness Project, an organization that supports progressive ballot initiatives in red and purple states. “Those lawmakers know their ideological views are out of sync with their voters [and] they are trying to change the rules of the game.”
Not all states allow constitutional amendments, but of the 17 that do, Florida is the only state that has a 60% threshold – all others require a simple majority. Arizona requires a 60% threshold for amendments that affect tax policy.
The Ohio secretary of state, Frank LaRose, justifies the Republican effort, saying it will “protect the Ohio constitution from continued abuse by special interests and out-of-state activists”. It’s unclear whether the Republican legislation to change the threshold has the votes to pass.
Abortion rights campaigners, meanwhile, are rushing to bring the issue to voters. At present, a six-week abortion ban is being held up in court in Ohio, and a 22-week ban is in place there in the meantime. New York Times polling from earlier this year suggests 52% of Ohioans believe abortion should be mostly legal, while more recent polling suggests 59.1% of registered voters in Ohio would vote to secure abortion rights in the state constitution.
Last week, two groups announced plans to bring two initiatives asking voters whether to codify abortion rights in Ohio’s state constitution.
One campaign is being led by Protect Choice Ohio, a new group led by over 1,o00 doctors. The other was announced by Ohioans for Reproductive Freedom, a coalition that includes the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. The two groups differ one when to bring the ballot before voters.
A 60% threshold would restrict the power of citizens to bring amendments in any arena, not just on abortion.
Rachel Sweet, who ran successful campaigns challenging anti-abortion ballots in Kansas and Kentucky, said she was unsurprised by the move, but conceded it would make securing an abortion rights amendment much harder if it passes. “Having to get to 60% plus one is much harder than getting 50% plus one,” she said.
Republican lawmakers in Ohio aren’t alone in attempting to thwart citizen-led initiatives to secure abortion rights. Missouri is also currently discussing an increase in the threshold for constitutional amendments, to 60% of the vote. The Fairness Project fought two similar proposals in 2022, in South Dakota and Arkansas, and successfully beat attempts to change ballot thresholds.
Following promising results for pro-choice campaigners on five abortion ballot initiatives in California, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana and Vermont in November, the group is exploring which news states are prime for similar measures in 2023.
Not all states are safe bets. Of the 17 states that allow ballot initiatives, some – like California, Michigan, Massachusetts, Montana and Oregon – already have strong existing protections for abortion. States they are likely to focus on are ones where abortion is currently under threat that allow citizen-led ballots, such as Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Dakota.
Democrat Terri Pickens Manweiler, who lost her race for lieutenant governor in Idaho, announced plans to bring an abortion rights ballot initiative in the state shortly after her loss. There, advocates will need signatures from 6% of the voters in at least 18 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts to qualify for the ballot, as well as signatures from at least 6% of voters statewide.
Mike Gonidakis, the president of the Ohio chapter of Right to Life, told local press the group will organize heavily against any ballot to protect abortion in Ohio, regardless of the circumstances under which it is brought.
“We will lead and orchestrate the largest grassroots initiative, mark my words, in Ohio’s history to defeat whatever it is they put on the ballot,” Gonidakis told reporters.