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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Ohio voters reject constitutional change intended to thwart abortion amendment

A voter casts her ballot at the Miami Township Civic Center in Milford, Ohio, Aug. 8, 2023.

By Michael Wines

Ohio voters earlier this week rejected a bid to make it harder to amend the state constitution, according to The Associated Press, a significant victory for abortion-rights supporters trying to stop the Republican-controlled state Legislature from severely restricting the procedure.

The abortion question turned what would normally be a sleepy summer election in an off year into a highly visible dogfight that took on national importance and drew an unprecedented number of Ohio voters for an August election.

Late results showed the measure losing by 13 percentage points, 56.5% to 43.5%. The roughly 2.8 million votes cast dwarfed the 1.66 million ballots counted in the state’s 2022 primary elections, in which races for governor, the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House were up for grabs.

The contest was widely seen as a test of Republicans’ efforts nationwide to curb the use of ballot initiatives, and a potential barometer of the political climate going into the 2024 elections.

Organizations that opposed the proposal called the vote a decisive rebuff of the state Legislature, which had ordered the referendum in an attempt to derail a November vote on a constitutional amendment that would guarantee abortion rights.

“It was about a direct connection with the abortion issue for many voters,” said Kelly Hall, executive director of the Fairness Project, one of the leaders of the Ohio campaign against the proposal. “But there were many others who saw it as a power grab by some legislators.

“The resounding rejection of their attempt means that voters know what’s up when they’re being asked to vote their rights away.”

The ballot measure would have required that amendments to the state Constitution gain approval by 60% of voters, up substantially from the current requirement of a simple majority. Republicans initially pitched that as an attempt to keep wealthy special interests from hijacking the amendment process for their own gain. The lawmakers voted largely along party lines in May to put the proposal on the ballot.

But from the start, that reasoning was overtaken by weightier arguments, led by — but hardly confined to — the abortion debate.

The Ohio Legislature passed some of the nation’s strictest curbs on abortion last year, banning the procedure as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. State courts have yet to rule on the constitutionality of those curbs, but the law’s passage drove a successful grassroots campaign this year to place an abortion-rights amendment on the November ballot.

That amendment would upend the new law by giving women legal control over reproductive decisions, allowing doctors to make medical judgments on the need for abortions, and restricting the state to regulating abortions only after a fetus is judged viable.

Raising the threshold for adopting an amendment to 60% of votes would have put the fate of the proposed amendment in doubt. In two polls, 58% and 59% of respondents supported granting a constitutional right to abortion access.

In the 111 years that Ohio voters have had the power to propose and vote on ballot initiatives, only about one-third of constitutional amendments managed to exceed 60%, according to political data website Ballotpedia.

Other provisions also rejected in the Tuesday referendum would have raised hurdles even to putting amendments on the ballot. One required backers of amendments to gather a minimum number of signatures from all 88 Ohio counties instead of the current 44 counties. Another eliminated their ability to correct errors in signatures that were rejected by state officials.

The Legislature’s move to raise barriers to new amendments came weeks before abortion rights advocates delivered petitions with roughly 500,000 verified signatures to state offices, more than enough to force the November vote. Tuesday’s election had become something of a proxy for the November election, with supporters of abortion access and anti-abortion forces waging a multimillion-dollar preview of the coming battle.

Ballotpedia estimated last week that at least $32.5 million had been spent on the battle, split roughly equally between the two sides. Eight in 10 dollars came from donors outside Ohio, that estimate said, including $4 million from a single donor, Richard Uihlein, the Illinois founder of a nationwide packing and shipping company, Uline Inc., who is one of the country’s most prolific patrons of right-wing causes.

Other out-of-state donors to supporters of the Legislature’s proposal included Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, a Washington, D.C., anti-abortion advocacy group that contributed nearly $6.4 million. The Concord Fund, one of several organizations controlled by Leonard Leo, who has overseen campaigns to confirm Republican nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court, was another donor.

The leading out-of-state donors to opponents of the Legislature’s proposal included the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a Washington D.C., supporter of progressive causes that gave $2.64 million; the Tides Foundation, another donor to progressive causes that gave $1.88 million; and Karla Jurvetson, a Palo Alto, California, doctor and Democratic Party donor who gave nearly $1 million.

Beyond the battle over abortion, it appeared that some voters were simply put off by the tactics the Legislature used to get the proposed restrictions before voters. Just last December, lawmakers outlawed almost all August elections, saying so few people voted in them that they had become easy prey for special interests with enough money to turn out their supporters.

The lawmakers reversed course in May when it became clear that a vote on an abortion-rights amendment was likely in November. More than a few critics noted that Tuesday’s referendum was, in essence, an election pushed by special interests with an abundance of money.

In Miami Township, a Cincinnati suburb that went strongly for Donald Trump in 2020, Tom Baker, 46, called the referendum a last-minute attempt by the state Legislature to tilt the playing field in favor of “all of the touchstones the aging conservative population is trying to force on generations.”

“I don’t like the idea of changing the mechanisms of government,” he said, “especially for an agenda.”

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