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Buckeye Ballot

Ohio Republicans’ Devious Plot to Stop Voters From Legalizing Abortion

The fight over reproductive rights in the Buckeye State begins with an August special election on an obscure ballot measure.

Megan Jelinger/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

The second Tuesday in August is not the ideal time for a vote on an important ballot initiative. Indeed, the Ohio state legislature earlier this year eliminated most August elections, citing high costs and low voter participation. However, those considerations did not prevent Republican state lawmakers from scheduling an August election that could make it more difficult for Ohioans to change the state constitution—just months before a vote on a proposed amendment to enshrine abortion rights in the state.

On August 8, Ohioans will vote on Issue One, a ballot measure that would increase the threshold of support required for amendments to be added to the Constitution, raising it from a simple majority to 60 percent of the vote. It’s hard to overlook the connection between Issue One and the proposed amendment on abortion rights, which would grant individuals the right “to make and carry out one’s own reproductive decisions” with regard to abortion, contraception, miscarriage management, and fertility treatment.

“Ultimately, this is about blocking Ohio voters from being able to vote on abortion access,” said Lauren Blauvelt, the vice president of government affairs and public advocacy at Planned Parenthood Advocacy of Ohio. “It is a direct attack on our democracy, and it absolutely is supposed to be a barrier to Ohioans who have spoken and want a vote on reproductive freedom.”

Earlier this month, a coalition of abortion rights supporters submitted more than 700,000 signatures to put the amendment on the November ballot (current law sets the threshold at around 400,000 valid signatures). The signatures must be checked by county board of elections officials and approved by Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose by July 25. If it makes it onto the ballot, the campaigns for and against the amendment will likely attract significant spending and national attention, coming roughly a year and a half after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

The future of abortion access in the state was already uncertain. In September, a six-week abortion ban was briefly adopted in the state, before a judge blocked it. Abortion remains legal in the state through 22 weeks, pending a review by the state’s Supreme Court. “This is a very tenuous position to be in,” Maria Phillis, a spokesperson for the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine and a maternal-fetal medicine physician in Ohio, told me last month. With a Republican supermajority in the state legislature, a Republican governor, and a Republican state Supreme Court, “it’s very difficult to get any kind of political redress,” Phillis continued.

Maureen O’Connor, a former state Supreme Court justice who retired in December, told CBS News in a June interview that the effort to raise the threshold was “misleading, it’s deceptive, and if it weren’t so serious, it would be laughable.” O’Connor, a Republican, noted that a poll last year showed 59 percent of Ohio voters believe abortion should generally be available. Moreover, voters in Kansas and Michigan recently voted to protect abortion rights in their state constitutions by just under 60 percent. “That’s why they chose the 60 [percent],” O’Connor said.

GOP state Senate leader Matt Huffman said in March that the cost of running an August election—he put the figure at $20 million—would be worth it to block an abortion rights amendment. LaRose was even more specific, saying in June that the vote on Issue One is “100 percent about keeping a radical pro-abortion amendment out of our constitution.”

Ohio Right to Life, an anti-abortion advocacy group in the state, is campaigning in favor of the change. Lizzie Marbach, Ohio Right to Life’s communications director, said in a statement to The New Republic that the organization “has built a large grassroots coalition focused on passing Issue One.”

“Under the current framework, wealthy out-of-state interest groups—like the abortion lobby—are able to buy their way onto the ballot every election cycle and insert their political agendas into our constitution,” Marbach said. “Passing Issue One puts a stop to that, restoring trust and confidence in our state’s guiding document and making it no longer vulnerable to the political whims of our day.”

Opponents of the measure counter that passing it would allow a minority to dictate state policies on abortion and other issues as well. “The whole point of ballot initiatives is to be a tool, a check and a balance on the power of the legislature in case they aren’t being responsive [to the public],” said Sarah Walker, the director of policy and legal advocacy at the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. “This is a direct attempt to limit what goes on the ballot, or what may be successful.”

State Representative Brian Stewart, a Republican who spearheaded the effort to get Issue One on the ballot, said in a June interview with that it would head off efforts to pass “far-left ballot proposals,” such as measures to increase the minimum wage. The Ohio Restaurant Association and the Ohio Chamber of Commerce have endorsed the measure in order to block proposed initiatives that could increase the minimum wage or end the tipped wage. (Richard Uihlein, a billionaire and Republican megadonor, also donated to the political action committee which pressured state lawmakers to lift the threshold to 60 percent.)

It would also make it more difficult to get amendments on the ballot in the first place, as Issue One would change the process for gathering signatures. “I think for [Ohio Republicans], it is just an added bonus that it would impact all ballot initiatives moving forward,” said Hannah Ledford, the campaigns director at the Fairness Project, an organization that advocates for passing progressive ballot measures in red states. “It is about abortion in that Issue One was put on the ballot to block the abortion initiative specifically, but it has a tail but is much longer than that.”

Opposition to Issue One has created odd bedfellows: The Ohio Coalition for Police Accountability and Transparency and the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio, for example, are among the organizations urging Ohioans to vote “no.” Four former Ohio governors—two Republicans and two Democrats—have spoken out against the ballot initiative, as have former state attorneys general from both parties, and the bipartisan Ohio Alliance of Mayors.

“For more than 100 years, amendments to the Ohio Constitution have been decided by a simple majority vote,” former GOP Governor Bob Taft said in an open letter to the state General Assembly. “The decision to change such a deeply embedded practice should not be made at a low turnout election.”

The upcoming special election in Ohio will also “set the contours of future battles around the use of citizens’ initiatives and direct democracy,” Walker said. Ohio is not the only Republican-led state that has recently sought to limit voters’ abilities to propose and approve amendments and ballot initiatives: Legislators in Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, North Dakota, Idaho, and Oklahoma have proposed similar steps, with the end result of making it more difficult for voters to overturn state abortion restrictions. In South Dakota, a similar initiative to raise the voter approval threshold for amendments to 60 percent was overwhelmingly defeated in June of last year, and an amendment to expand Medicaid in the state then passed in November with 56 percent of the vote.

“It’s certainly a pattern,” Ledford said. “I fully expect additional attacks on the ballot measure process to continue, and we will be fighting these fights next month and beyond.”

In the meantime, advocates and opponents of Issue One will spend the next few weeks mobilizing voters, as well as encouraging early and absentee voting. LaRose has been blasé about the possibility of low participation in the August election, saying this week that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if voter turnout hovered in the single digits.

But Kyle Marcum, the political director for Ohio Citizen Action, told me that the response from voters ahead of the election “blew me away.” Marcum’s is one of dozens of organizations in the nonpartisan One Person, One Vote coalition, which opposes Issue One. Marcum said that, since May 11, groups in that campaign have knocked on 40,000 doors and spoken to more than 10,000 likely voters about the August election.

“When we’re out there talking to voters, knocking on doors, and making phone calls, nearly every single person has either heard of Issue One and is excited to vote against it, or once they hear about it, they understand that this is really an effort by the state legislature to take away their right to put up a citizen ballot initiative,” Marcum said. He added that his organization was also reminding Ohioans to bring their photo ID to their polling place, as a recently enacted law requires such identification for in-person voting.

Planned Parenthood Advocates of Ohio and Ohioans for Reproductive Freedom, which are also members of the One Person, One Vote coalition, have also pivoted to organizing and campaigning around Issue One now that the signatures to get the abortion amendment on the ballot have been submitted.

Blauvelt told me that she was “confident” the August ballot initiative would be defeated, in large part because voters are aware of the ramifications for abortion access. But she also believes that, even if Issue One is approved, abortion rights advocates will mobilize in large numbers ahead of the November amendment vote. The biggest difference may be the spending, as achieving a 60 percent threshold would require greater financial investments to reach voters, but “the energy and the momentum” will be the same, Blauvelt continued.

“We’ve been up against the full force of the state government this entire time,” she said. “And abortion is still legal in Ohio because we’ve never given up, because our supporters have never given up, and because Ohioans want access to abortion.”