Abortion-rights advocates are energized after last week’s decisive win in Ohio, and they are looking to build on that momentum by putting abortion protections on the ballot in more states next year.
Activists are eyeing ballot measures for red and purple states, including Florida, Missouri, Arizona and Nevada. The efforts have been in motion for months, if not longer, and the groups involved are hopeful they have found the winning formula following a string of successes in the past year.
The approval of Ohio’s Issue 1 marked the first time red state voters were asked to affirmatively vote in favor of changing the laws to protect abortion, rather than voting against the status quo.
“Ohio was really a test to see if the momentum was still viable. … Turns out it was. Reproductive freedom has a 7-0 winning streak,” said Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, the executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which works to advance progressive measures.
Abortion-rights groups pointed to early investments and a broad coalition of groups with an existing network of supporters they could build from. They also tailored their messaging to a more conservative electorate.
“The thing that was very clear to us in conversations with Ohioans is how deeply held privacy is, the right to make decisions about family, and so we really leaned heavily on that,” said Joey Teitelbaum, a pollster at Global Strategy Group who worked on the Issue 1 campaign.
Democrats have made abortion rights a central part of their message since the Supreme Court ended federal abortion protections last year, and ballot initiatives could drive voter turnout in key swing states in 2024, giving a boost to down-ballot Democrats and even President Biden.
Arizona, Ohio and Nevada also all have competitive Senate races and could be crucial for Democrats to hold their slim majority.
But motivating Democratic voters will take more than merely putting an abortion question on the ballot. Deirdre Schifeling, chief political and advocacy officer at the American Civil Liberties Union, said successful ballot measures need well-run, well-financed campaigns to communicate to voters.
“If you just throw abortion on the ballot, is it going to spur turnout? Well, no,” Schifeling said.
“What drives voters to the polls, and generates turnout and excitement and enthusiasm — which we have seen among young voters, among voters of color among women, the constituencies that you would expect to be energized by reproductive rights — that requires a well-resourced and well-run campaign, so I think it’s not enough just to put [abortion questions] down there,” she added.
Backers of the Ohio measure credited a broad range of voters, not just progressives or Democrats. In red states especially, abortion ballot measures won’t be able to pass if they’re only supported by Democrats.
“In any state, you’re going to need a coalition of voters across party lines to be successful,” Melody Fields Figueredo said.
“But the beauty of ballot measures is, you know, these issues that often are highly partisan and highly political … when you put them before voters they see how it will impact their lives directly, and often will vote for these issues regardless of party affiliation,” she added.
Since the Dobbs decision that ended Roe v. Wade in 2022, abortion-rights advocates have won ballot initiatives expanding or protecting access in Michigan, Vermont, California and now Ohio. They have also blocked attempts to restrict access in Kansas, Kentucky and Montana.
But ballot measures are becoming increasingly expensive, and only some states make the option available. Even in the states where campaigns are underway, there are some significant hurdles before the question even gets to voters.
“We are witnessing a pretty concerted effort from a lot of red-state legislatures to make qualification for the ballot harder. To increase the number of signatures that need to be collected, the restrictions on who can collect signatures … I think those are sort of a death by a thousand cuts restrictions that make it harder for regular people to participate in the process,” said Kelly Hall, executive director of the ballot measure group Fairness Project.
Following Ohio’s vote last week, the anti-abortion group American United for Life explicitly called for the remaining red states that allow a citizen-led ballot initiative process to eliminate it, and only allow measures approved by the state legislatures.
Hall said once a constitutional ballot measure passes, it is difficult to repeal it with another one, which is something Ohio GOP lawmakers have floated.
“I think when folks are facing an election day loss … there’s always an instinct to say this isn’t over. We’re coming right back at this,” Hall said. “We would welcome people to continue to ask Ohio voters how they feel about this issue. We know how they feel, which is that they voted 56 percent in favor of a constitutional amendment to protect abortion rights.”
One of the most high-profile fights in 2024 could come in Florida, where abortion-rights advocates have been collecting signatures for months on a measure that would protect abortion to the point of viability. They face a Feb. 1 deadline to qualify for the November 2024 ballot.
The campaign has collected about 500,000 valid signatures so far; the state’s threshold is more than 891,000. If the measure gets on the ballot, it would need 60 percent of the votes to pass.
But Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody (R) has asked the state’s Republican-majority Supreme Court to reject the measure, arguing that the word “viability” is misleading and that backers will push for even looser abortion rules.
Laura Goodhue, the executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates, said the Supreme Court and a hostile attorney general are an extra hurdle. But even though Florida is a reliably conservative state like Ohio, Goodhue said the group is confident the initiative “transcends partisanship.”
“Our patients at Planned Parenthood don’t come in as Democrats or Republicans, they come in as patients. And the more we talk to people, the more we find that independents and Republicans as well as Democrats do not want government interfering in their decision to be a parent or not, to continue the pregnancy,” she said.
Florida currently bans abortion after 15 weeks, but the state Supreme Court is poised to rule any day on a lawsuit challenging the ban. If it is upheld, a six-week ban that Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed into law earlier this year would automatically take effect.