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State legislators wanted to stop the public from voting on abortion rights to redistricting. Similar fights are playing out nationwide, as conservative lawmakers try to make it harder for liberals to pass policies at the ballot box.
In Ohio, Republican lawmakers hoped to change the constitution to make it harder for public-led ballot measures to pass. But after voters soundly rejected Issue 1 in early August, GOP officials now face at least three separate measures to thwart their policies at the ballot box.
Organizers are trying to protect abortion rights, legalize recreational marijuana and overhaul the state’s dysfunctional system for redrawing state legislative districts.
“Republicans have gotten used to getting away with absolutely anything. They really hadn’t heard the word ‘no.’ One of the big stories here is just simply the finding of a pulse, the proof of life that there’s a viable path in Ohio to reaching voters,” said David Niven, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati and a former speechwriter for Democratic officials.
The last time Republican majorities in the Ohio Legislature suffered a major rebuke came in 2011, when voters repealed a law that would have restricted labor rights for public workers like firefighters and police officers, he noted.
This time, GOP lawmakers put Issue 1 before voters on Aug. 8, in an effort to stymie an abortion rights measure from passing in November. Issue 1 would have made subsequent constitutional amendments harder to pass. For example, future amendments would have needed 60% approval instead of a simple majority to become law.
Politically, the midsummer vote was also designed to boost the proposal’s chances of passing, because typically elections at off-times have lower voter turnout.
But Issue 1 lost handily, by a 57%-43% margin. Campaigns spent roughly $35 million in the fight, much of it from donors outside of Ohio. Turnout was heavy, with more than 3 million people casting a ballot. That’s 38% of the registered voters in the state. Voters in several areas that had supported Donald Trump in the 2020 election rejected the Republican proposal.
How Ohioans Will Vote on Abortion Measure Is Unclear
Both sides warned voters that Issue 1 would have a big effect on abortion rights. But that doesn’t mean the same thing will happen in November as in August, said Dan Birdsong, a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Dayton.
“I haven’t seen anything that would give me a clear indication that what we saw with Issue 1 is going to be a carbon copy of the reproductive rights issue come November,” he said.
There are several dynamics that could change the results, Birdsong noted. First, the question in November will be a more straightforward decision about abortion policy, rather than procedural questions. Many traditional Republican voters who back restrictions on abortion might have been turned off by the messy process at the Statehouse that got Issue 1 to the ballot, he said. Months of party infighting about the amendment led to the election of a more moderate Republican speaker of the Ohio House in January and delayed Republican efforts to get Issue 1 on the ballot earlier. They had tried to get it on the ballot last year, but that effort fell short as well.
Also, Birdsong said, the vote on legalizing recreational marijuana will be on the ballot at the same time as the abortion rights measure. That could prompt some conservatives who oppose legalized pot to turn out for the vote, which could help opponents of the abortion measure, Birdsong said.
The reproductive rights amendment is a response to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade last year. A group of doctors called the Ohio Physicians for Reproductive Rights and other advocates want to guarantee access to abortion, using a process similar to what advocates used in Kansas and Michigan.
Republican lawmakers in Ohio passed a six-week abortion ban in 2019 that’s been on hold since it passed. Judges stopped enforcement of the law while legal challenges wind their way through the courts.
The proposed amendment would guarantee that individuals have the right to “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.”
The Effort to Legalize Marijuana Could Undermine Abortion Vote
Abortion won’t be the only issue on the ballot in November. Ohio voters will also consider a new effort to legalize marijuana, after a previous vote failed in 2015.
Tom Haren, a spokesperson for the Committee to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, noted that Issue 1 would not have changed the criteria for the pot measure to pass. The pot question before voters is on whether to create a state law, not an amendment to the state’s constitution.
“We’re obviously encouraged by the high turnout,” he said. “High turnout is a good thing in any election, if more people are participating in the political process. We’re encouraged that voters are paying attention to the ballot and seem energized to vote in this November election. But that's really the only impact that Issue 1 has on our campaign.”
Recreational marijuana advocates want to put regulations in place for legal sales of the drug as soon as possible, because they worry that the legal landscape could change at any time.
“We’ve had a regulated medical marijuana program here since 2016. We know how to regulate the sale and production of marijuana. We don’t need a new framework,” Haren explained. But if the Biden administration changes the classification of marijuana as a controlled substance, Haren said, “without an adult use framework in place, it would be unregulated, untaxed, sold by anybody to anyone with no guardrails. That’s a really bad policy. It’s important for us to be proactive on this measure instead of reactive.”
Do Ohioans Want a New Redistricting Process?
Finally, the last big ballot question on deck is a high-profile fight over legislative and congressional redistricting, an effort that could directly undercut the power base of Republican lawmakers.
GOP officials flaunted seven separate rulings by the state supreme court holding that the lines they drew for congressional and legislative maps violated the state constitution. Voters made changes to the state charter in recent years to encourage lawmakers to draw more competitive and representative maps.
But Republican lawmakers and statewide officials pushed through partisan plans that the state high court ruled unconstitutional, leading to a stalemate between the branches of government. Eventually, federal judges appointed by President Donald Trump sided with the Republican legislators to use their maps for the 2022 elections.
Now, a group called Citizens Not Politicians is collecting signatures to put a new redistricting process before voters in November 2024. Former chief justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican who authored many of the high court’s decisions, is one of the leaders of that effort. She described the existing redistricting process as “doomed to fail.”
The proposal that advocates hope to get on next year’s ballot would put a 15-member commission in charge of redistricting, which would include five Democrats, five Republicans and five independents.
The redistricting effort is hardly a surprise to Republican lawmakers in Ohio. State Rep. Brian Stewart warned of the possibility last December, as GOP legislators first started considering raising the requirements for ballot measures.
“Unable to win a statewide election, Democrats now intend to rewrite Ohio’s constitution to put Maureen O’Connor and other unelected liberals in charge of drawing legislative districts, affecting not only the Ohio Legislature, but control of the United States House of Representatives as well. That’s just in 2023,” he wrote.
However the ballot measures fare, there’s no guarantee that Democrats will be able to capitalize on them, said Birdsong, the University of Dayton political scientist, noting that they haven’t fared well statewide since 2006.
Niven added that Ohio voters often separate politicians from their policies.
“There is a gap between how Ohioans vote on candidates and how Ohioans think about issues,” he said. “Don’t be surprised when Ohioans stand up for reproductive rights literally one year after reelecting [Gov.] Mike DeWine with over 60% of the vote, even though Mike DeWine would literally ban all abortions with no exceptions. That’s Ohio politics in one sentence.”
What’s Happening in Ohio Doesn’t Stay in Ohio
There’s a chance Ohio voters will face a similar ballot question on whether to make it harder to change the state constitution in the near future. As Issue 1’s fate became clear on Election Night, Senate President Matt Huffman raised the possibility that the legislature would try again with a similar proposal. He blamed the failure of this year’s proposal on the short campaign and opposition among prominent Republicans.
“I think it’s a question that was worth asking of the voters, not only because of the two issues that are on the ballot in November, but the six to 10 that are planned over the next couple of years,” Huffman said, according to the Ohio Capital Journal. “The question really is, are we going to allow our constitution to be amended on a regular basis.”
But voters in other states might be faced with similar proposals, too.
Arizona lawmakers are pushing new rules to require organizers to gather a minimum number of signatures in every legislative district to qualify for the ballot.
In North Dakota, lawmakers want subsequent ballot measures to be limited to a single subject and pass in both a primary and a general election to become law.
Missouri lawmakers are likely to revisit the qualifications for constitutional amendments next year, after failing to come to an agreement this year. Voters forced the state to expand Medicaid and legalized marijuana through constitutional amendments. Organizers are also trying to add protections for abortion access in the constitution as well.
“The national fight over ballot measures began to pick up around a decade ago when a coordinated push happened across the country to use the ballot initiative process to expand Medicaid and enact other popular, progressive policies that fare well with voters across the political spectrum,” said the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a progressive group that tracks ballot measures.
“We have seen another steep escalation in legislatively-referred attacks since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and voters in red, blue and purple states have been using the power of direct democracy to enshrine reproductive freedom into their state constitutions,” the group added.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.