Proponents of a persistent complication for voters to amend the Ohio Constitution have given many, sometimes contradictory reasons for wanting to do it. But obviously chief among them is the attempt to block the abortion rights amendment that is currently in the works.
To pull off the maneuver, abortion opponents are trying to partially reverse a ban on the August ballot they passed just months ago so they can put an amendment on the low-turnout ballot. But the last time anti-abortion groups tried something similar, it backfired — in a state far more conservative than Ohio.
In person acute public resistanceOhio House Republicans are deciding whether to put a measure on the August ballot that would increase the number of votes needed to pass a constitutional amendment from 50% to 60%.
It would also make it much more difficult for voters to place amendments on the ballot by requiring a certain number of the already massive number of required signatures to come from each of Ohio’s 88 counties. That’s double the current 44.
People outside the anti-abortion movement are behind the effort to limit access to the state Constitution. The Ohio Restaurant Association supports it as efforts gather momentum to pass an amendment to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. Buckeye Firearms Associationwho fears gun control amendments also supports it.
And there are legislative Republicans who are concerned about that a tougher anti-gerrymandering amendment will pass after the GOP-dominated redistricting commission ignored seven state Supreme Court rulings, saying congressional and legislative maps violated earlier amendments that passed by more than 70 percent of the vote.
But fear of an abortion rights amendment is also a strong part of the coalition behind the push to block the state Constitution. Ohio Right to Life supports the effort, and one of the leaders of the effort, Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, told colleagues last year that ending the abortion rights amendment was one of its main goals.
The latest story
It may seem unfair, but while the measure requires all future amendments to receive 60% of the vote to become part of the Constitution, the amendment Ohio Republican leaders want to bring to the floor would only have to meet the current 50% threshold. And after trying to bring it to the August vote – on which one voter turnout is below 10%. are commonplace—they seem to be counting on the most committed anti-abortion voters to turn out at the polls while pro-abortion-rights go about their summer business.
If so, it ignores recent history. Anti-abortion lawmakers tried something similar in conservative Kansas last August — and they lost in a stunning blowout by 19 points.
Leslie Butch, regional director of the ACLU of Kansas, helped organize the movement to amend the state constitution for abortion rights. On Wednesday, she explained what happened there, which could help explain how things could be happening in Ohio.
In 2019, the Ohio General Assembly passed and Governor Mike DeWine signed Senate Bill 23, which would have banned the vast majority of abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy, the point at which many women do not know they are pregnant. That same year, the Kansas Supreme Court struck down the restrictions signed into law there, finding that they violated the Kansas Constitution’s protection of bodily autonomy.
“We immediately realized that the next step for anti-abortionists would be to change the Constitution to ban the right to abortion,” said Butch, adding that she and her colleagues started the organization.
Unlike Ohio, the only way to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot in Kansas is to go through the legislature first. Interestingly, the first attempt to pass an anti-abortion amendment failed to garner enough votes in 2020 in the GOP-dominated Kansas House of Representatives. But many of the Republicans who voted against lost the primary later that year, and a similar amendment passed in 2021.
Opponents of abortion in Kansas wrote the law so that it would be placed on the ballot for the August 2, 2022 primary. Kansas is a “closed primary” state, meaning you must be a member of a party to vote in its primary.
“They put this amendment on the primary ballot, and it was an absolutely direct attempt to suppress voters,” Butch said. “We’ve come across a lot of misinformation, especially for independents.”
In Kansas, she explained, independent voters outnumber Democrats, and both groups have reasons not to vote in the primary — unaffiliated voters because they don’t belong to a party, and many Democrats because they live in districts where Republicans have no opposition.
“It was a huge education campaign that we had to do with independent voters and independent voters,” Butch said. “Even though it was a primary, and they may not have voted in a primary before, they had to vote in this, and they could vote in this.”
While federal protections against abortion were still in place, the debate over the abortion laws in Ohio and Kansas was somewhat academic. But on Friday, June 24, 2022, there was thunder. The US Supreme Court issued its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Orgrepealing abortion protections enshrined in the Roe v. Wade almost half a century ago.
In Ohio, Attorney General Dave Yost has rushed to court to immediately enact a 2019 Ohio law that provides no exceptions for rape and incest. A few weeks later, a story appeared A 10-year-old rape victim who was forced to travel from Columbus to Indianapolis for an abortion. This story was quickly followed by others more minor rape victims, chaos in abortion clinics and seriously ill women who could not get help in Ohio.
In Kansas, no restrictions went into effect due to a state Supreme Court ruling in 2019. But at a huge, emotional rally on the day of the Dobbs decision in Kansas City, Mo., the importance of the situation across the state line in Kansas became clear for all to see, Butch said.
“Every other speaker that spoke that day, Friday, June 24th, said that Kansas is the first state to have the ability to protect abortion at the ballot box, and it happened on August 2nd. Vote against,” she said.
Dealing with confusion
People who wanted to support abortion rights in Kansas had to vote against it because, in addition to putting it on the ballot in a closed, low-turnout August primary, supporters used confusing wording that required a counterintuitive vote, Butch said.
But she explained that as she and her colleagues worked to educate and organize voters, they had some powerful forces on their side. One was the strong libertarian trend among the electorate—including many Republicans.
“Abortion aside, Kansas people like to keep the government out of their lives,” Butch said. “We knew that if this amendment passed, it would lead to a complete ban on abortion, and that was our message. It was really compelling to people. Vote no and stop the government from interfering with your personal medical decisions.”
Another help came because the campaign was not about a person running for office, with all the hype and sloganeering that comes with party politics.
“Because they had to vote for an issue and not necessarily a candidate, it turned out to be a lot of people,” Butch said. “This was not a partisan issue. These were people from all sides of the political spectrum addressing this very issue. We found it to be a motivator. They didn’t want to just sit back and watch what happened. People wanted to make sure their voice was heard.”
Then came August 2, and the pro-abortion side won by a margin that stunned observers across the United States. Since then, the intensity and scale of support for abortion rights has been confirmed in the Kentucky, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Butch said that in Kansas, her cause has support throughout the state, which has huge rural areas.
“I knew we were going to have metros, but a lot of the rural counties that went heavily for Trump were also very close,” she said.
So if supporters of restricting voter access to the Ohio Constitution put the question on the ballot in August, how hard will it be for abortion rights advocates to get their voters out not just in November, but three months earlier?
Butch said it would take a lot of work, explaining the wrinkles. But she said if the other side confuses and complicates the vote, “that’s an incredibly motivating thing that people can campaign for.”
She added: “Having to teach all these different things and voting so many times makes it difficult, but I also know that the organizers can pull back the curtain and say, ‘Yes.’ It’s really complicated and confusing, and here’s why: These people want to suppress your voice and don’t want to hear from you. They obstruct the democratic process.” It’s the same thing that we said about the language in our amendment and that it was in the primary. We said, “Doesn’t that make you angry?” And aren’t you going to go out and pick up five of your friends too?’
Originally published Ohio Capital Journal. Republished here with permission.