Ohio special election Issue 1: What the results mean for abortion rights

On Tuesday, Ohio voters rejected a Republican proposal known as Issue 1 that would have made it harder for citizens to put issues on the ballot or for a constitutional amendment to pass in the state.

The decision has big implications for this fall’s election: In November, Ohio voters will decide on a constitutional amendment to protect abortion rights. And political analysts say the ramifications could extend into 2024 — when Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown is up for reelection in Ohio and when Democrats hope to win big nationally by motivating voters on issues of protecting abortion rights and democracy.

The amendment would have raised the state’s threshold for passing constitutional amendments from a simple majority of votes, as has been the case for over 100 years, to 60 percent, which its GOP sponsors hoped would be too high a bar for abortion rights supporters to clear.

But the measure backfired, with analysts calling the election for the “no” side shortly after polls closed Tuesday night. Still, passage of the abortion rights amendment in November is no foregone conclusion; while polling so far bodes well for supporters, most citizen-led ballot measures in Ohio historically have failed.

Kelly Hall, the executive director of the progressive ballot measure group Fairness Project, hailed the victory as an “incredibly profound and inspiring day for our democracy.” She said her national organization looks forward “to an aggressive campaign in the coming months” to protect Ohio abortion rights in November.

Rhiannon Carnes, spokeswoman for Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights, released a statement Tuesday night laying out the stakes for the future of abortion access following Issue 1’s defeat. “Ohioans know that if we don’t succeed,” she said, referring to the November referendum, “the government will have the power to ban abortion completely, even in cases of rape, incest, or when someone’s life is in danger.”

How Issue 1 lost

In November, voters in Ohio will weigh in on a proposed amendment for reproductive freedom that would restore the right to an abortion up to the point of fetal viability — or the point at which a fetus could survive outside the womb. The amendment would also permit abortions beyond that point in cases when “the pregnant patient’s treating physician” deems it necessary to protect their life or health.

Though abortion is currently legal in Ohio through 22 weeks of pregnancy, a state law barring abortion after 6 weeks, with no exceptions for rape, is currently tied up in the courts. Pro-choice Ohio doctors led the push for the abortion rights measure on the upcoming November ballot, stressing that their ability to provide proper medical care is at urgent stake.

Restricting abortion rights was the primary reason Republicans placed Issue 1 on the ballot for the August special election. GOP officials recognized they could make it harder for any constitutional amendment to pass in November by changing the rules in advance. A poll from June found nearly 60 percent of Ohioans support the idea of a proposed amendment for reproductive freedom, but nearly 60 percent would not be enough to pass under the parameters of Issue 1. And while abortion rights ballot measures won in red and purple states last year, they all received between 52 and 59 percent of votes, making a 60 percent threshold seem sufficiently insurmountable.

In addition to raising the threshold to 60 percent, Republicans also sought to make it harder to get initiatives on the ballot in the first place. This was necessary to earn the support of the powerful Ohio Chamber of Commerce, which wanted to limit the number of ballot campaigns it potentially had to help fund.

Just last year, Republican lawmakers had voted to repeal August special elections in Ohio, calling them low-turnout wastes of money.

For months Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose denied he had switched positions on August special elections because of abortion rights. But in June, video footage reported by News 5 Cleveland and the Ohio Capital Journal showed LaRose admitting abortion was motivating his stance. “Some people say this is all about abortion. Well, you know what?” he was recorded saying. “It’s 100 percent about keeping a radical pro-abortion amendment out of our constitution — the left wants to jam it in there this coming November.” (LaRose announced last month that he is running for US Senate.)

While Republicans and anti-abortion groups claimed that making it harder to pass ballot measures was necessary to protect the integrity of Ohio’s constitution from interference by out-of-state groups, 82 percent of the funding for the pro-Issue 1 political action committee came from an Illinois-based Republican megadonor named Richard Uihlein.

Opponents, meanwhile, raised much more money to defeat Issue 1 — at least $14.8 million according to the latest filings. Opponents framed Issue 1 as a threat to average citizens, as it would have significantly raised the costs of the signature-gathering process by requiring organizers to canvass in all 88 counties. Considerable funds for the opposition campaign also came from outside Ohio, including a national progressive dark money group known as the Sixteen Thirty Fund, the California-based Tides Foundation, and the National Education Association.

The opposition campaign comprised not only reproductive rights supporters but also public school proponents who wanted to preserve a tool for addressing educational inequality, democracy activists who want to tackle redistricting, environmental groups that want to push for climate action, and workers’ rights advocates who want to push more labor reforms. A coalition known as One Fair Wage, for example, has been collecting signatures for a potential 2024 ballot measure to raise Ohio’s minimum wage, and union organizers joined forces with the anti-Issue 1 campaign to raise awareness about how all future progressive measures could be affected.

Together, the broad coalition worked to focus voters’ attention on the anti-democratic implications of Issue 1, which was aimed at stripping away not only the principle of majority rule on Ohio ballot measures, but also one of the last remaining ways voters can shape politics in the heavily gerrymandered state.

What this means for abortion rights

A USA Today/Suffolk University poll released in late July found that 58 percent of likely Ohio voters support the measure to codify abortion rights, including one-third of Republicans and 85 percent of independent women. Because Issue 1 failed, abortion rights supporters will only need to win a simple majority of votes — rather than 60 percent.

The outcome of Ohio’s abortion referendum will likely shape the political narrative headed into 2024, as it’s the only abortion rights battle voters will weigh in on this fall. Last election cycle, abortion rights won in all six states with ballot measures, but anti-abortion leaders also spun the midterms as good for them because Democrats failed to unseat incumbent governors and didn’t win enough seats in Congress to pass any federal legislation restoring abortion rights. Ohio’s results should help clarify where the energy really is.

Other abortion ballot measures are expected next year in states like Florida, South Dakota, and Arizona, and both opponents and supporters of abortion rights are bracing to spend tens of millions more dollars on such referendums than they did in 2022.

Ohio’s proposed amendment would affirm that “every individual has a right to make and carry out one’s own reproductive decisions, including but not limited to decisions on contraception, fertility treatment, continuing one’s own pregnancy, miscarriage care, and abortion.” Opponents claim the language is so broad that it would create a new right to gender-affirming surgery, and therefore invalidate the state’s current requirement for parental consent.

Opponents organizing under the banner of “Protect Women Ohio” have made the trans youth health care argument central to their strategy, spending over $5 million on TV and digital advertising this past spring. They are regularly referring to the measure as an “anti-parent” amendment.

Coalition leaders pushing for the abortion rights amendment say the focus on transgender health care is a desperate attempt to distract from the unpopularity of abortion bans, and that Ohio case law generally requires parental consent for youth medical care. Moreover, the amendment could only affect parental consent laws if someone were to successfully challenge the rules in court as unconstitutional, and given that Ohio’s state Supreme Court is controlled by Republicans, legal experts think a more sweeping interpretation of the abortion rights measure is unlikely.

What the Ohio results mean for democracy

The defeat of Issue 1 has implications not only for Ohio democracy but also for other states looking to push measures to restrict citizen ballot measure initiatives.

Supporters tried to claim that the restrictions they were pushing were because they truly deeply cared about Ohio democracy. Issue 1 proponents argued that efforts to change the state’s founding documents should be difficult, and that too much direct democracy could even undermine their system of representative government. “If a constitutional issue is significant enough to impact all 11.8 million Ohioans, then it should have to garner and demonstrate broad statewide backing for consideration,” said the heads of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, the Ohio Restaurant Association, and the National Federation of Independent Business in a joint statement in May.

However, the idea that Ohio voters can easily amend their state constitution is not true. In the last 111 years, only 19 citizen-led ballot measures have been approved, and 52 failed. What Issue 1 supporters were really objecting to is that there was a viable way to check anti-abortion lawmakers’ power at all.

As of late June, according to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a progressive group that supports state referendum campaigns, 14 states were considering a total of 50 pending measures that would raise new hurdles for ballot measures.

The defeat in Ohio is not the first time in recent memory that Republican lawmakers have failed in their efforts to restrict ballot measures. Last summer South Dakota voters rejected a bid by state GOP officials to raise the threshold for ballot measures to 60 percent — a bid that one Republican official admitted was designed to cripple a ballot measure for Medicaid expansion. (Medicaid expansion in South Dakota ultimately passed.) Arizona voters also rejected a measure last fall that would have allowed lawmakers to amend or repeal ballot initiatives approved by voters.

But Republicans have certainly been notching wins too. Lawmakers in both Florida and Arkansas recently raised the signature requirements for qualifying for the ballot, and last year Arizona voters did approve two measures that restricted citizen initiatives.