Friday, November 17, 2023

Barometer or Bellwether? Analyzing Ohio's Proposition 1

By Susan Roberts

Just days ago, the citizens of Ohio passed Issue 1, the latest in a string of state constitutional protections for access to reproductive rights and access to abortion. By a margin of 56.6 to 43.4 percent, Ohioans amended their state constitution to support reproductive freedom with access to abortion being only one item in language considered having “reasonable limits.” The victory was even sweeter for pro-choice Ohioans since only three months earlier, they defeated an effort by the Republican state legislature to raise the threshold to amend from a simple majority to a sixty-percent vote margin.  Remarkably, this vote was virtually identical to the vote on Issue 1's outcome, with 56.5 to 43.5 voting not to raise the threshold.

Ohio is just one example of this push, with several states share key characteristics in the campaigns to amend their state constitutions. Most notably, campaigns for initiatives promoting reproductive rights and access to abortion aren’t cheap. These 'amending' efforts require substantial budgets, but they have delivered big margins of victory. In Ohio, pro-choice advocates spent $29 million in contrast to over $10 million by opponents. The campaign for passage of Michigan’s Proposition 3 saw both pro-choice and pro-life activists raise over $57 million. Even with the big budgets, the margin for victory was 57 to 44. The California victory for pro-choice advocates cost over $9 million for their 69-33 victory. Even in Vermont, a state where the passage of Proposition 5 was relatively assured, over $1.2 million was spent to produce a 72 percent margin of victory for pro-choice advocates.

Additionally, these efforts require a healthy turnout. Heavy turnout during special and off-year elections favor those voters who are highly motivated and enthusiastic, and this time the numbers went to the Democrats. Unofficial counts showed a turnout of roughly 49 percent, especially impressive for an off-year election. Undoubtedly, the post-Dobbs numbers of newly registered women voters were a plus, and here Ohio’s gain of 6.4 percent was second only to the hefty numbers in Kansas of 51.41 percent. Independents accounted for 33 percent of Ohio's turnout and voted for Issue 1 by 28 percent.

In addition to the Ohio pro-choice victory, contests in both Kentucky and Virgina signal the growing and steady support for reproductive rights. First, Democrat Andy Beshears's re-election as Kentucky's governor has been seen as direct result from pro-choice activism. CNN asserted: “Think of that: a red-state Democrat running on abortion rights and winning. Only in a post-Roe world.” Second, Virginia Republican Governor Glen Youngkin saw his party lose control of both chambers of the state's General Assembly. Youngkin, seen as flirting with running for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, suffered a damaging blow, likely caused by his stance on abortion.

What is striking is that the messaging on access to abortion has seen a subtle but significant evolution. The Kansas amendment explicitly outlines state funding abortion; however, the pro-amendment side saw as  “unusual” and “misleading” texts sent to voters.  In contrast to the earlier initiatives, Ohio’s Issue 1, “The Right to Reproductive Freedom With Protections for Health and Safety,” references reproductive freedoms including “contraception; fertility treatment; continuing one’s own pregnancy; miscarriage; and abortion.” Access to abortion is not fore fronted, while listing other freedoms make the overall vote more palatable to a wider variety on constituents.

At least six states are considering amending their state constitutions to provide protections for access to abortion. Abortion rights backers in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Nevada, South Dakota and Nebraska are all working to collecting signatures for ballot initiatives in 2024. Although the proposed amendments are not finalized, and some of them haven’t collected the required number of signatures to be placed on the ballot, the trend is clear. 

In addition, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee is trying to influence the legislature to put forth some initiative to protect abortion. New York is proposing an  initiative on reproduction protection that has no explicit inclusion of the word abortion. At this writing, the remaining states have not formally introduced initiatives.

On the other hand, Iowa legislators approved an amendment stating that abortion cannot be protected in their constitution. And opponents of abortion in Pennsylvania are pursuing an amendment prohibiting access to abortion.

What does all this portend for Election 2024? Will abortion eclipse other issues such as the economy and unemployment?  And are these victories encouraging for Joe Biden and his likely bid for the White House? 

The fallout from the Dobbs decision indeed drove women to register in greater numbers and turnout in greater numbers, but few political observers anticipated the impact. Pundits, journalists, and scholars alike predicted rising prices and inflation would have a greater impact than the Dobbs decision on vote choice in the midterms. Surveys from the Kaiser Family Foundation suggested that while abortion was viewed as a very important issue for voters, it was not going to be as impactful as economic issues. Post midterms, Brookings bluntly and empathetically argued “It wasn’t just the ‘economy stupid’ – it was abortion.”  Abortion rights advocates indeed held back the “red wave” tide that almost all political scientists had predicted.

If Ohio Issue 1 becomes issue number one for Americans across the country, Biden could have higher approval numbers than recent polls indicate. It’s unclear if this could signal a White House victory for Biden in 2024. One thing is for sure: if political scientists and pundits underestimate support for reproductive freedoms in favor of public confusion and disproval regarding “Bidenomics” as the bellwether, we may again be incorrect, and embarrassingly so.


Dr. Susan Roberts is a professor of political science at Davidson College. She posts at @profsuroberts.