For years, extremists and the special interests who fund them have made it clear that they are willing to shut down the use of ballot measures if it means making short-term gains to restrict progress on issues like reproductive rights.
Early last month, Ohioans delivered a resounding victory for both reproductive rights and democracy. Voters handily rejected Issue 1, a bad-faith effort to limit voters’ right to propose and enact their constitutional amendments—like the one headed to the ballot this November to ensure Ohioans have control over their reproductive freedoms.
The proposal would have undone majority rule in Ohio, allowing just 41% of voters to veto the will of the majority. It also would have required petitioners to collect signatures in all 88 counties to qualify a measure, effectively giving a single county veto power over an entire ballot question.
Ohio Republicans were transparent that Issue 1 was intended to block the constitutional amendment on reproductive rights that will be voted on this November. Anti-abortion groups spent millions on the special election, and Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose went so far as to boast that the question was “100%” about abortion.
Since the Dobbsdecision, and as advocates for reproductive freedom have sought to use the ballot measure process to protect their rights in more states, legislatures in red states are fired up to strip voters of their right to direct democracy.
Unsurprisingly, Ohioans did not take kindly to being asked to vote their rights away. In an off-year special election in the middle of the summer, turnout more closely mirrored that of a midterm, and opposition to Issue 1 spanned party lines. Issue 1 fell short in a number of counties that Trump won, and it underperformed Trump’s 2020 margin nearly everywhere, according to an Associated Press analysis.
Ohio politicians tried every trick in the book—including putting misleading language on the ballot and breaking their law to schedule the election in August—yet the effort crashed and burned. This follows the failures of politicians in Arkansas and South Dakota, both of which proposed 60% thresholds for ballot measures last year and were soundly rejected by voters in back-to-back elections.
Issue 1 also continues the inspiring trend of voters turning out directly at the ballot box in red, blue, and purple states to defend reproductive rights after the fall of Roe v. Wade. Last year, voters defeated anti-abortion measures in Kansas, Kentucky, and Montana, and enshrined proactive reproductive freedom measures in California, Vermont, and Michigan.
The news out of Ohio is undoubtedly positive, but the fact that this election happened at all is symptomatic of a much larger problem. We’ve seen repeatedly that ballot measures are an incredibly effective antidote to political institutions acting against voters’ interests. On few issues is that contrast more pronounced than reproductive rights; more than 8 in 10 Americans believe that abortion should be legal in some or all circumstances, even as the Supreme Court has ended federal protections for abortions and more than 24 states have active abortion bans or are likely to pass them.
For years, extremists and the special interests who fund them have made it clear that they are willing to shut down the use of ballot measures, an essential piece of our democracy, if it means making short-term gains to restrict progress on issues like Medicaid expansion, minimum wage, paid leave benefits, and criminal justice reform—and since Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, that list now includes abortion access.
Politicians in more than a dozen states have made myriad attempts, some successful, to undermine direct democracy in recent years. In addition to Ohio, The Fairness Project, where I am deputy executive director and campaigns director, has tracked attacks in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Utah, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming.
These attacks often take the shape of the 60% threshold like Ohio’s. They also include building up tedious signature and circulation requirements for petitions, limiting how many subjects a ballot measure can address, and passing counter-legislation to hinder or slow-roll the implementation of successful ballot measures.
Since the Dobbsdecision, and as advocates for reproductive freedom have sought to use the ballot measure process to protect their rights in more states, legislatures in red states are fired up to strip voters of their right to direct democracy. We saw it in Ohio, and we will no doubt see it again.
2024 may produce the highest number of issues put directly to voters we’ve seen in recent years, and organizers in several states are already working to qualify reproductive rights measures for next year. But restoring and defending reproductive rights at the ballot box—among many other issues—now necessitates a two-pronged strategy that includes defending the ballot measure process itself.
Thankfully, Ohio shows us that there is promise and that the people are ready to fight back.