PAF in The New Yorker: How Ohio Voters Defeated an Effort to Thwart Abortion Rights

The New Yorker
The New Yorker

Republicans in the Ohio legislature are accustomed to acting with impunity. Thanks to a carefully crafted, veto-proof majority in both chambers that might make Elbridge Gerry blush, they worry little about the popular will in a state that is more evenly divided than the legislature’s agenda would suggest. “We can kind of do what we want,” Matt Huffman, the State Senate president, said last year. But on Tuesday, Ohio’s voters demonstrated that they can’t do so always—at least, not when they’re trying to change the rules in order to give themselves more power.

In a chain of events triggered by the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which overturned Roe v. Wade last year, the Ohio legislature hurriedly tried to raise the threshold for changing the state constitution by popular vote from a simple majority—a standard that has been in force since 1912—to sixty per cent. Their aim was to get ahead of a ballot initiative in November that would amend the constitution to insure that “every individual has a right to make and carry out one’s own reproductive decisions.” Voters in neighboring Michigan approved comparable language last year, with nearly fifty-seven per cent of the vote. A recent opinion poll in Ohio suggested a similar level of support, which worried anti-abortion G.O.P. legislators, who were counting on the summer doldrums to depress turnout.

The strategy failed. Early voting proved exceptionally popular, as lines stretched out the door and around the corner in the state’s most populous counties. The vote-no campaign not only won convincingly statewide, fifty-seven percent to forty-three per cent, but it also registered victories in more than twenty counties. (Joe Biden, by contrast, won just seven counties in Ohio in 2020.) “Ohioans saw this for what it was, a naked power grab,” Jen Miller, the executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, a member of the vote-no coalition, told me. “More power for the powerful and more power for those with deep pockets. And less power for all of us to hold the Ohio government accountable when it’s not acting in our interest or is being corrupt.”

The result showed anew the mobilizing power of abortion rights, especially when paired with a message that the bans favored by many Republican-dominated legislatures are an affront to personal liberty. A racy advertisement from the vote-no camp shows a partly clad woman and man in bed. The woman asks the man whether he has a condom. He says that he does, but as he reaches for the drawer someone else gets there first. “I’m your Republican congressman,” a man in a suit and tie says. “Now that we’re in charge, we’re banning birth control.” As the scene closes, the words on the screen read, “Keep Republicans out of your bedroom: Vote no on Aug 8.”

The same Don’t-Tread-On-Me idea of exercising rights free from government intrusion, which has been so effectively deployed lately by conservatives, helped defeat a Republican-led measure in Kansas last year, in the dead of summer, that would have removed abortion rights from the state constitution. There, in the first post-Dobbs election centered on reproductive rights, the pro-choice advocates pointedly called themselves Kansans for Constitutional Freedom. The measure lost by eighteen points in a state that Donald Trump had easily won twice. The triumph started a pro-choice winning streak that has stretched from Kentucky and Montana to Michigan, Vermont, and California. In Illinois, after early Ohio results were in, Anne Caprara, the chief of staff to the Democratic governor, J. B. Pritzker, tweeted, “There is no more potent issue in America than abortion. None. It is the issue that cuts across partisan/gender/racial lines. It affects everyone.”

The vote-no advocates also exploited a sense that leading Republicans were trying to eliminate majority rule. One meme drew on the famous rivalry between Ohio State and Michigan. If the sixty-per-cent threshold applied to football, and the final score in a game was Ohio State 59 and Michigan 41—in other words, if Ohio State didn’t score at least sixty points—Michigan would be the winner. It didn’t help the backers of the amendment, called Issue 1, that they launched the campaign without publicly mentioning abortion, but declaring an urgent need to “safeguard Ohio’s constitution from special interests,” especially monied figures in other states.

In fact, for more than a hundred years, since shortly after Theodore Roosevelt lamented, in Ohio, that many state legislatures “have not been responsive to the popular will,” the state’s procedures for amending the constitution by popular vote have worked smoothly. More amendments lost than won in recent decades, even with the threshold for passage at a simple majority. And not all the winners could be defined as progressive. (In 2004, voters agreed to define marriage as between a man and a woman.) Yet Republican leaders, led by Frank LaRose, Ohio’s secretary of state, who has since declared his candidacy for the U.S. Senate, said that the threat was so urgent that an August election was essential.

LaRose, however, had previously backed a successful effort to abolish August special elections, calling the costly, low-turnout affairs “bad news for the civic health of our state.” (In his about-face, he said that holding Tuesday’s vote was a matter of “good government.”) And more than eighty per cent of the money raised by Protect Our Constitution, the principal backers of Issue 1, came from a wealthy Illinois abortion opponent and Republican donor, Richard Uihlein. It also turned out that, according to LaRose himself, the goal was, in fact, to prevent voters from guaranteeing access to abortion in November. “This is a hundred per cent about keeping a radical, pro-abortion amendment out of our constitution,” he told a political gathering.

After Tuesday’s defeat, the president of Ohio Right to Life, Michael Gonidakis, predicted that abortion opponents who were queasy about raising the threshold would muster in November and defeat the pro-choice amendment. “They’ll come home,” he said. If they do, there’s a good chance that a harsh law, which forced a pregnant ten-year-old to travel to Indiana for an abortion last summer, will be reimposed. That law, which banned almost all abortions after six weeks, with no exceptions for rape or incest, remains on hold amid a court challenge. If the pro-choice amendment is approved in November, the law would be superseded by a policy akin to the one outlined in Roe v. Wade.

Among the optimists is Sri Thakkilapati, the executive director of an Ohio abortion clinic, who addressed reporters on Wednesday. She recalled the months last year when the stricter law was in effect, requiring her to turn away hundreds of patients, who then needed to leave the state if they still chose to seek an abortion. “They were terrified,” she said. Her experience shows her that “people in every corner of the state need this service, and we know that they support this right.” As the vote-no campaign of August pivots to vote yes in November, she said, “We have the momentum. We have the will of the people.”

By Peter Slevin

You can read the full article here