The state may have moved right in recent years, but new polls suggest support for abortion rights remains strong.
Republicans worked for decades to get Roe v. Wade overturned, saying all the while that the issue of abortion should be “returned to the states.” But what if voters in a Republican-leaning state reject the GOP’s position? Then they’ve got a different problem: democracy.
Now Ohio Republicans are trying to duck the will of the voters with some clever maneuvering. The state’s voters will decide on two ballot initiatives in two separate elections in a matter of months. One is explicitly about abortion, while the other is only implicitly about abortion but would go even further, to the very question of whether democratic accountability should exist at all.
As of Tuesday, abortion rights advocates in Ohio have officially gathered enough signatures to place a measure on the ballot in November’s election to enshrine reproductive freedom in the state constitution. The measure would essentially codify in the constitution the standard that was previously protected by Roe: If the referendum passes, the state would be prohibited from restricting abortion until after the point of fetal viability, which usually occurs around 24 to 28 weeks into a pregnancy.
Though Ohio was once the quintessential swing state, it leans more Republican now than it did a few years ago. Barack Obama won it twice, but then Donald Trump won it twice, both times by 8 points. Yet that doesn’t mean the state’s voters are on board with the GOP’s agenda on reproductive rights. A recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll found the ballot measure supported by a strong 58% to 32%. Even a third of Republicans supported it, and among independent women — a group both parties would very much like to win — support was a remarkable 85%.
It would be only the latest Republican state, following even redder Kansas, Kentucky and Montana, to pass measures protecting abortion rights or rejecting anti-abortion policies since the Supreme Court overturned Roe last year.
If the measure succeeds, it would be a dramatic blow to the Republican agenda on one of the most important issues dividing the parties. Republicans who have gotten used to having absolute control in Ohio considered that outcome intolerable. So they created their own ballot measure to change the state’s rules on ballot measures.
That initiative, known as Issue 1, would raise the threshold to pass constitutional amendments on the ballot from 50% to 60%. It would also require that 5% of voters in every one of the state’s 88 counties sign a petition before any proposed measure could get on the ballot; the current rules require only 5% of voters in 44 counties.
In other words, if Issue 1 succeeds, it would be dramatically harder to get an initiative on the ballot and dramatically harder for it to win. And though Republicans have claimed they only want to advance “good government,” among friends they’re more forthright. As Secretary of State Frank LaRose (who is also running for the Senate) said at a Republican gathering recently, the measure “is 100% about keeping a radical, pro-abortion amendment out of our constitution.”
Thankfully, GOP subterfuge seems to be backfiring.
Lest there be any doubt, the Legislature scheduled the vote on Issue 1 for a special election in August, when it could be assured a lower turnout. So if it succeeds, the abortion amendment on the ballot in November would have to get 60% to pass. Ohio Republicans are so committed to this farce that the Legislature ignored the law it passed in December banning almost all August special elections. When liberals pointed out the obvious contradiction, the Republican-majority on the state’s Supreme Court ruled the Legislature could simply break the law it passed less than a year ago.
Thankfully, GOP subterfuge seems to be backfiring. Liberals in Ohio have responded by making the Issue 1 vote a second referendum on reproductive rights: In one dramatic ad, a couple about to have sex are shocked when a Republican congressman appears and grabs their condom; he says, “Now that we’re in charge, we’re banning birth control.” The ad’s tag line is “Keep Republicans out of your bedroom. Vote no on August 8.” And the campaign seems to be working: The same USA Today/Suffolk poll found 57% of voters oppose Issue 1, more than double the 26% in support. Even Republicans are roughly split, while independents disapprove by a whopping 60% to 24%.
Opponents can’t take Issue 1’s defeat for granted, though. Abortion may be the issue on which the Republicans’ agenda is most clearly unpopular even in a state they control, but the lasting effect of Issue 1 would be to close off one of the last means voters in Ohio have to exercise their will. The state is home to some of the most dramatic gerrymandering in the country, at both the congressional and state legislative levels. Though Democrats still get about 45% of the statewide vote, Republicans control 10 of the 15 congressional seats, enjoy a 67-32 supermajority in the state House and hold an even wider 26-7 advantage in the state Senate.
That means that even when Republicans do unusually poorly, it is functionally impossible for Democrats to take control of the Legislature. The same is true in Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina and Texas — states where the GOP has taken advantage of slight (and potentially temporary) statewide majorities to draw lines making their control of the legislatures absolutely bulletproof. Throw in regular tweaking of rules to make it more difficult for certain people to vote, and you’ve nearly written democracy out of the system.
Most of the time, people pay little attention to what their state Legislatures are doing, so they barely know whether they’re representing their interests and preferences. But abortion is the exception that could focus voters’ minds; it’s entirely possible that in Ohio they will reject Issue 1 and then pass the reproductive rights amendment in November. At which point, the state’s Republicans would have to find some other way to insulate themselves from the popular will. They’re probably already working on it.