On 10th of May, a group of religious leaders gathered to pray in a circle in front of the Ohio state capitol. Inside the statehouse, Republicans were casting their votes on a bill that could thwart advocates’ efforts to enshrine abortion rights in the constitution of the state.
Among the group of clergy was the Rev Terry Williams, a pastor who lives in a small town about 50 miles (80km) south of Columbus. When a congregant confided in Williams in back in 2012 that she needed to carry out an abortion, the pastor found it difficult to find a clinic – there are currently only six in the state of Ohio. The experience drew Williams into reproductive health advocacy.
Williams said “It was overwhelming. I just became radicalized. I went from being the parish minister that helps people to being also the guy that goes and yells at the legislature.”
As it stands currently in Ohio law, voters can amend the state constitution by a direct vote with a simple majority. If it passes this November, one such ballot initiative – brought forward by Ohio Physicians for Reproductive Rights and Ohioans for Reproductive Freedom – would codify the right to abortion in the Ohio constitution.
But Republicans in the Ohio house of representatives passed a proposal on 10 May that could make it much harder for that abortion rights measure to pass by requiring a supermajority vote for ballot measures. The proposal, Senate Joint Resolution 2 (SJR-2), is scheduled to come before voters in an August special election.
Opponents of the bill have already filed suit to stop the 8 August election, citing the state legislature’s recent move to prohibit August special elections. Given the short timeframe – election officials will begin to prepare ballots next month – the lawsuit would need to be resolved quickly to have an effect on the upcoming election.
State representative Brian Stewart, who introduced the bill, reportedly lamented in private correspondence that if the abortion rights amendment passes, “Republicans’ work to make Ohio a pro-life state” would “be undone”. Publicly, the state senate president, Matt Huffman, told reporters that the special election, which is estimated to cost approximately $20m, would be money well spent “if we save 30,000 lives as a result”.
In states like Ohio, where GOP-gerrymandered maps – deemed unconstitutional by the state’s highest court – have stymied attempts to pass progressive legislation, groups have used ballot initiatives to enact those laws instead. But only 24 states allow citizens to directly enact legislation or constitutional amendments, and Republican legislators have increasingly moved to restrict the ability to pass initiatives by a direct vote.
In 2022, Arizona Republicans used a ballot initiative to require a supermajority for proposals that would involve raising taxes and to limit ballot initiatives to focus on a single subject. As in Ohio, the move in Arizona was passed in advance of a ballot initiative to add abortion rights to the state constitution.
A similar push by Republicans failed this month in Missouri, where voters could see an abortion rights amendment up for a direct vote as soon as 2024. Similar bills have been introduced to restrict the use of ballot initiatives in North Dakota, Oklahoma and Idaho.
Voting rights advocates in Ohio point to the long-term consequences of the measure for the passage of popular legislation.
“It is going to affect all of democracy, not just abortion,” said Kayla Griffin, state director of the voting rights group All Voting Is Local. “It will be increasingly hard for the people’s voice to be heard in a state that does not listen to the voice of the people.”
A range of anti-abortion and business groups with ties to the national right wing have voiced their support for the measure to restrict ballot initiatives in Ohio. In a press release, the anti-abortion group Ohio Right to Life thanked state representative Stewart and his colleagues, calling the proponents of the bill “pro-life champions”.
Tax filings indicate that the president of Ohio Right to Life is also the director of the Virginia-based National Right to Life Committee. Meanwhile, Beau Euton, a lobbyist speaking on behalf of the Opportunity Solutions Project, cited legislation in Florida and Arizona in an endorsement of the Ohio bill. On its website, Opportunity Solutions Project states that the organization identifies “state-level reforms and promote[s] them to voters, the media, and state policymakers”. The group has supported similar measures to limit direct democracy in Missouri and Arkansas.
Also supporting the bill is the Ohio Restaurant Association, an affiliate of the National Restaurant Association, which has historically opposed legislation to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour. A measure to raise the Ohio minimum wage to $15 via ballot initiative is pending in the state and could be put to a vote in November 2024.
Meanwhile, the Republican maneuver has generated a wave of opposition at the grassroots. More than 50 Ohio organizations have endorsed the Vote No in August campaign, which emerged in the immediate aftermath of the measure’s passage. On 10 May, protesters flooded the state capitol building to oppose the measure.
“There are organizations on the left that never work with each other,” said Williams. “But they all came together on Wednesday.”
Voting rights advocates opposing the measure say they will face unusually tough hurdles in getting out the vote in the August special election, given that the state passed in January a raft of restrictive voting laws. The laws limit the early voting period, reduce the amount of time voters have to turn in mail-in ballots and impose stricter voter identification requirements.
“The people being affected the most by this are Black and brown communities,” said José Arnulfo Cabrera, co-executive director of the Young Latino Network, a Cleveland-based civic engagement group. “Our communities already feel that the civic process is so complex and so hard and they’re dealing with so many other personal things in their daily lives that adding all of these complexities about voting just disengages people.”
Cabrera said the passage of SJR-2 has prompted a renewed campaign to educate voters through phone banking and door knocking.
On college campuses across the state, student organizers for abortion rights have shifted their work to get out the vote in the August special election.
“I feel like a lot of people are just very angry,” said Emilyn Lagger, a senior at the University of Toledo. Lagger, who is involved with a campus abortion rights group and has campaigned for the abortion rights ballot initiative, said campus organizers would pivot to opposing the measure on the August ballot. “It destroys democracy,” she said