The next wave of abortion rights ballot measures looks different from the last

Jul 12, 2023

Last election cycle, abortion rights won in all six states with abortion ballot measures, including in red states like Kentucky and Montana that otherwise elected Republican lawmakers.

Now, this fall and in next year’s election, national liberal groups are planning to invest more heavily in ballot measure campaigns, seeing them as vehicles both to protect access to abortion care and to amplify their broader political message that abortion bans are out of step with voters.

Advocates in at least 10 states are considering ballot measure campaigns over the next two years to codify abortion rights. In some states — including Florida, South Dakota, Ohio, Arizona, and Missouri — the measures could help restore rights that have already been lost. In other states, such as Nevada, Maryland, Colorado, and New York, voters could enshrine existing state protections.

Anti-abortion activists, in turn, have vowed to spend millions more dollars to defeat them.

The results last year were “a wake-up call that taught us we have a ton of work to do,” Kelsey Pritchard, the state public affairs director for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, told Politico in March. “We’re going to be really engaged on these ballot measures that are often very radical and go far beyond what Roe ever did.”

Some abortion rights activists do hope to codify protections beyond what Roe v. Wadeguaranteed — sparking internal debates among reproductive rights advocates about tactical ballot measure language.

Most of these measures would be on the ballot in 2024. The exception is Ohio, where reproductive rights advocates are organizing for a new constitutional amendment to protect abortion rights during the upcoming election thisNovember.

As campaigns to get abortion on the ballot begin, fights are also brewing about ballot measures themselves, which provide voters with opportunities to weigh in directly on state policy changes.

In some states, citizens can collect petition signatures to get measures on the ballot; in others, lawmakers have to first approve the proposals. The recent success of abortion rights measures has catalyzed efforts by Republican lawmakers to restrict thesevoter initiatives. As of late June, according to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a progressive group that supports state referendum campaigns, 14 states are considering a total of 50 pending measures that raise new hurdles for ballot measures.

Republican lawmakers in Arkansas, for example, recently passed new requirements for ballot measures to have signatures of support from 50 counties, rather than just 15. (Three years ago, Arkansas voters had rejected a similar requirement.) Republican lawmakers in other states are seeking to raise the number of votes needed for a ballot measure to pass.

GOP elected officials say they want to protect the integrity of the ballot initiative process, which they argue is too easily influenced by out-of-state interests.

But abortion rights advocates see a direct response to their past victories. In KentuckyKansasMichigan, and Montana in 2022, between 52 and 59 percent of voters cast their ballots in support of reproductive rights. If their referendum thresholds had been 60 percent, as some states now propose, all those initiatives would have failed.

While Republicans mostly deny their proposed changes to ballot initiatives are motivated by opposition to abortion rights, some of their less guarded remarks and contradictory behavior have suggested otherwise.

The fight over abortion rights and access to the ballot is playing out right now in Ohio. Advocates are organizing there for a new constitutional amendment to protect abortion rights, and last week filed more than 700,000 signatures to place it on the upcoming November ballot. They’ll need 413,487 valid signatures to qualify.

It’s not yet clear how many votes the referendum will need to pass. State Republican lawmakers, who voted last year to repeal August special elections as low-turnout wastes of money, recently authorized one anyway: This August, Ohio voters will determine whether to raise the vote threshold for passing future constitutional changes from a simple majority, as has been the case for 100 years, to 60 percent.

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