The Ohio referendum is another victory for abortion rights activists
Editor’s note (9 August 2023): This article has been updated.
ohJOHN YES unused to vote in August. Before that, elections were held in the summer only in bad circumstances. Even then, not many people showed up – primaries held last August, including a seat in the Senate, only got single-digit turnouts. But the turnout this year was around 40%. Ohioans voted in large numbers to answer one question.
On August 8, the Buckeye State decided in a special election not to make its constitution more difficult to change: voters rejected a proposal to introduce a higher barrier by about 57% to 43%. President Joe Biden welcomed the defeat of “an obvious attempt to undermine voters”. voices.” In Ohio residents can collect signatures to force a popular vote on proposed changes. If this referendum were passed by the state legislature, citizen-sponsored amendments would be required to collect signatures from each county, rather than the current requirement of only half of the counties. For those who made it that far, the threshold for a proposal to pass would be increased to 60% of the vote (from a simple majority).
Supporters argued that the changes would leave legislation up to the legislature. If the statehouse gets something wrong “we can change it tomorrow,” said Brian Stewart, the representative who led the charge for the special election. “Once it’s in the constitution, it’s usually there to stay. ” The higher bar would lead to bipartisanship, advocates in Ohio said.
Across America, 26 states allow residents to initiate ballot measures, including 18 where citizens can propose constitutional amendments. In recent years such votes have become a tool to implement liberal ideas in Republican-controlled states, including legalizing marijuana, raising the minimum wage and expanding Medicaid ( health insurance for the poor). In Ohio, Republicans have controlled state government since 2011. The proposed amendment “wasn’t about building a consensus,” said Kelly Hall of the Fairness Project, a national nonprofit group. a nonprofit that supports liberal ballot initiatives and campaigned against the proposed amendment in Ohio. Rather, it was “a power grab by the legislature to ensure that more decisions remain in their hands”.
Activists were concerned that the additional signature requests to get on the ballot would limit future campaigns to well-funded corporate interests. The 60% level would have had an immediate impact – which goes some way to explaining the timing of the special election. In November Ohioans will face another ballot measure, this time on whether to include the right to abortion in the state constitution. That would be a big change: right now, bans on six-week abortions are being challenged in state courts. If the August amendment had been approved, the November vote would have needed to reach the 60% threshold.
Six more states have voted on abortion since then Dobbs the Supreme Court’s decision was set aside Roe v. Wade Last year. In both cases, voters have chosen to protect access to abortion. But in Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan the abortion rights campaign won with less than 60% of the vote. In Ohio the legislature called a special election in August after it was likely that an abortion amendment would make it onto the ballot. “There’s never a wrong time to do the right thing,” explained Frank LaRose, the Republican secretary of state who campaigned to raise the threshold. The timing was coincidental, he said: if the vote wasn’t close to an abortion vote, it would be close to some other liberal issue.
Ohio is not the only state where the legislature is pushing back against ballot initiatives. The Ballot Campaign Strategy Center, a group that supports progressive voting, has tracked 50 campaign restriction measures in 14 states this year. It is a “decade of what is [Republican-controlled legislatures] view as positive benefits”, says Sarah Walker, one of the group’s strategists, but “the decision of the Supreme Court with Dobbs has increased these concerns.”
Some of the recent changes have been procedural to the point of pedantry: South Dakota now requires that all signatures supporting a campaign ballot on one piece of paper, and in 14-point font, resulting in address-sized petitions being passed around at county fairs. Other changes are more fundamental. Next year North Dakota will vote on whether to require constitutional amendments to be approved twice, first in a primary election and then in a general election. In Arkansas a state law passed this year increases the number of counties where it is necessary to collect signatures from 15 to 50 (of a total of 75). In Ohio Bryan King, Republican state senator, broke with his party over the proposed law. “It’s just a main thing,” explained Mr. King, known locally as a “conservative cowboy” (and a true cow farmer). “That’s what the birth of our country was about: challenging what the government does… We shouldn’t be doing it so hard.”
But instead of showing how easy it is to change the constitution, the efforts often show the opposite. Last year in Arkansas and South Dakota ballot measures to raise the thresholds to 60% both failed. Although Arizona’s majority tax-related measures passed, another measure passed there that would have allowed the legislature to amend successful ballot initiatives. In Ohio, the campaign raised the opposition to raising the bar for changes three times as much money as the opposition. And it was certain that the voters rejected the proposed change.
In the Progressive Era ballot campaigns grew in popularity, amid widespread distrust in the workings of democracy. The record of democracy is just that mixed, and that can lead to ill-considered laws (just ask Californians). But many voters, in Ohio and elsewhere, are willing to undermine it. ■