A Special Election In Ohio Shows Voters Still Care About Abortion

Abortion rights in Ohio passed their first test on Tuesday. But the final exam could still be a challenge.

By a margin of 57 percent to 43 percent, Ohio voters rejected Issue 1, which would have made it harder to pass future state constitutional amendments by (among other things) requiring them to get 60 percent of the vote. The election was widely regarded as a proxy fight over abortion, since Republican legislators had put Issue 1 on the ballot in an effort to stop the passage of a November amendment that would enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution.

These types of maneuvers have proven unpopular in the past, and Issue 1 was no exception. As I wrote on Monday, Republicans have tried to combat liberal ballot measures by raising the threshold to pass some of them in at least 10 states since 2017 — but only one of those efforts has been successful. And the five times they’ve been put before voters in that time, those efforts have received an average of only 43 percent of the vote. In other words, majority rule seems pretty popular with voters.

Proposals like Ohio’s Issue 1 don’t have a good track record

Election results for ballot measures to raise the threshold for passing future ballot measures, since 2017

Year State Measure Proposed Threshold Actual support
2018 South Dakota Amendment X 55% 46%
2022 South Dakota Amendment C 60 33
2022 Arizona Proposition 132 60 51
2022 Arkansas Issue 2 60 41
2023 Ohio* Issue 1 60 43

*Results as of 7:30 am Eastern on Aug. 9. Arizona Proposition 132 raised the threshold only for ballot measures that raise taxes. South Dakota Amendment C would have raised the threshold only for ballot measures that raise taxes or appropriate at least $10 million in a five-year period. South Dakota Amendment X and Ohio Issue 1 would (have) raise(d) the threshold only for constitutional amendments. Arkansas Issue 2 would have raised the threshold only for constitutional amendments and citizen-initiated statutes.

Sources: Ballotpedia, state election officials

As a result of Issue 1’s failure, constitutional amendments in Ohio will continue to require just a simple majority in order to pass. That could prove decisive for November’s vote on abortion rights. According to an average of three early polls of that amendment, 57 percent of Ohioans support adding abortion rights to the constitution, 24 percent are opposed and 20 percent are undecided. And a similar amendment passed in next-door Michigan last year by 13 percentage points (56.7 percent to 43.3 percent).

However, abortion-rights supporters can’t just assume that the abortion amendment will coast to victory now that they’ve defeated Issue 1. Early polls of a similar amendment that ultimately passed in Michigan last year also gave it a wide lead the summer before the election, but that advantage narrowed as Election Day approached (although the amendment ended up outperforming its final polls). And, of course, Ohio is a redder state than Michigan is: In 2020, President Biden won Michigan by 3 points but lost Ohio by 8. Elections don’t always work this cleanly, but if you simply subtract 11 points from the margin of Michigan’s abortion amendment, you arrive at a scenario where Ohio’s amendment passes by only 2 points. 

So expect both abortion-rights supporters and opponents to take nothing for granted this fall. That’s especially true considering the election’s high stakes: November’s vote may very well decide whether Ohio’s 2.6 million reproductive-age women have access to abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. While abortion is currently legal in Ohio until 22 weeks of pregnancy, the state has a law on the books banning abortion after cardiac activity can be detected (around six weeks). That law is currently on hold while the Ohio Supreme Court decides whether it is constitutional. If November’s amendment passes, the voters will have made their decision for them, and the law will be unconstitutional. But if it fails, the court’s 4-3 Republican majority could easily uphold the six-week ban, putting a stop to most abortions in the state.

Unsurprisingly, then, interest in November’s election is expected to be through the roof. Just look at how many Ohioans turned out to vote in the summer of an odd year for a ballot measure over the seemingly dry subject of constitutional election law. Over 3 million ballots were cast in Tuesday’s election — either 34 or 35 percent of the state’s 2022 voting-eligible population, depending on the final tally. For comparison, only 18 percent of the VEP voted on a May 2018 ballot measure over redistricting.

That high turnout tells us two things: First, voters saw this as an election that was about much more than constitutional election law. And second, nine months after the 2022 midterm elections and 13 months after the Dobbs decision, abortion remains a highly motivating issue for voters.

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