Politics

Abortion rights won big in Ohio. Here’s why it wasn’t particularly close.



The measure’s defeat now gives abortion-rights supporters a clearer path to victory.

Opponents of Issue 1 view the victory as the first battle on abortion in the coming cycle, when the issue will be a factor in competitive Senate and House races that could help determine who controls Congress — as well as a number of direct ballot measures in swing states in the works.

But opponents also frame their victory as one that protects the power of the simple majority.

“I think sometimes, a lot of these fights get viewed in a single entity and the state gets viewed in a single moment as its value to the presidential battleground map,” said Ohio Democratic Party Chair Liz Walters. “And I get that, but democracy matters everywhere,” pointing to Arkansas and South Dakota, where voters similarly rejected efforts to implement a supermajority requirement for ballot initiatives.

Here are three takeaways from Tuesday’s election in Ohio:

Abortion still a serious turnout driver

Tuesday’s election proved that the state-by-state battle over abortion rights is still a serious motivator to get voters to the polls — even when abortion isn’t directly on the ballot.

Ohio Republicans moved in January to cancel most August elections because they were low turnout affairs that voters rarely paid attention to. Just over 8 percent of voters turned up in an August 2022 state legislative primary election, for example.

So when the GOP-controlled legislature pulled an about face months later by scheduling Issue 1 on the August ballot, abortion rights supporters cried foul, saying it was an attempt to kneecap them without voters noticing.

But voters turned up in droves anyway. More than 600,000 people voted early — a number that could still rise from late-arriving mail ballots — which outpaced the entirety of the turnout for that 2022 August election. It was also more than twice the number of people who voted early in the May 2022 primaries, which featured competitive Senate or gubernatorial contests.

Both pro-abortion rights groups and anti-abortion activists invested heavily in getting their supporters to show up. And conservatives emphasized supporters voting early as well, as Republicans try to close the gap created, in part, by former President Donald Trump’s relentless attacks on early voting.

Instead of a summer snoozer, turnout was off the charts.

Anti-abortion messaging isn’t evolving, or resonating

Anti-abortion groups that have invested millions in ballot initiative fights have deployed similar messages in each state since the post-Roe contests kicked off last summer — focusing on areas they see as political vulnerabilities, including parental consent, abortions later in pregnancy, and gender-affirming care for minors.

In Ohio this week and in Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan and other states last year, groups poured millions into TV ads arguing that codifying abortion rights in the state constitution would lead to the abolition of any restrictions on the procedure — including requirements that parents be notified when a minor terminates a pregnancy and bans on most abortions after the point of fetal viability.

“I don’t think our messaging will change at all, because we’ve seen positive movement from the messaging,” Mike Hartley, a veteran GOP strategist in Ohio and campaign manager for Protect Women Ohio, the coalition against the abortion-rights measure, said last month. “We’re gonna keep hammering … that it’s not just about abortion.”

Though polling indicates majority support for those restrictions, even among Democrats, the arguments have not swayed voters in these races amid a general surge in support for abortion rights in the year since Roe was overturned.

Dobbs changed everything. Any polling done prior to then is obsolete,” said Ashley All, who led the successful Kansas campaign to defeat an anti-abortion rights ballot measure last summer and is now advising other states through the group Families United for Freedom. “People now see the real consequences of these bans. They see children having to cross state lines to get care. They see women almost dying in childbirth. So they don’t buy the arguments the other side is making.”

The fight drags on

Abortion in Ohio remains legal for now thanks to a court injunction blocking enforcement of the state’s near-total ban. But Ohio voters have an opportunity to directly weigh in on a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to permanently protect the right to the procedure — making any anti-aboriton legislation obsolete.

With Congress lacking the votes to pass either national abortion restrictions or bring back the protections of Roe, abortion-rights groups see state ballot measures as one of their best tools for maintaining or restoring access in red and purple states.

Similar efforts to put abortion rights to a popular vote are also brewing in Arizona, Florida, Missouri, Nevada and South Dakota. Activists in many of these states are hoping to get the issue before voters in 2024, in which turnout will be especially high due to the presidential election.

Arizonans tried and failed to hold a referendum in 2022, falling short in signature-gathering. On Tuesday, they launched a new push, hoping to scrap the state’s current 15-week ban. A poll released by progressive groups Data for Progress and Indivisible on Tuesday found its presence on the ballot would drive higher turnout among Democrats but not Republicans — potentially shaping the results of the state’s Senate and presidential races.



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