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Republicans Attack Abortion Rights Ballot Initiatives in Several States

At least 139 bills that would impact the ballot initiative process have been introduced in state legislatures this year.

Protesters hold signs at a rally in support of abortion rights in Dayton, Ohio, on May 14, 2022.

Last year, after the U.S. Supreme Court ended the federal right to abortion, voters in Kansas, California, Michigan, Vermont, Kentucky, and Montana used the ballot initiative process to show their support for reproductive freedom, both by defeating GOP-backed anti-abortion measures and approving constitutional amendments aimed at preserving abortion access.

Those losses for anti-abortion Republicans and their wealthy backers have led the party to ramp up its attacks on the ballot initiative process itself in several states.

As The New York Times reported Sunday, “The biggest and most immediate fight is in Ohio, where a coalition of abortion rights groups is collecting signatures to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November that would prohibit the state from banning abortion before a fetus becomes viable outside the womb, at about 24 weeks of pregnancy.”

“Organizers were confident that the measure would reach the simple majority needed for passage, given polls showing that most Ohioans — like most Americans — support legalized abortion and disapprove of overturning Roe,” the newspaper continued. “But Republicans in the state legislature are advancing a ballot amendment of their own that would raise the percentage of votes required to pass future such measures to a 60% supermajority. The measure has passed the Ohio Senate and is expected to pass the House this week.”

The Republican initiative — which is backed by right-wing special interest groups such as the Buckeye Firearm Association, Ohio Right to Life, the Center for Christian Virtue, and the American Center for Law & Justice — would require just a simple-majority vote to pass, and it is expected to appear on the ballot in August.

The special election will mark a dizzying reversal for Ohio Republicans, who moved to effectively eliminate August elections last year due to their high costs and extremely low turnout.

“The side that wins is often the one that has a vested interest in the passage of the issue up for consideration,” Frank LaRose, Ohio’s Republican secretary of state and a supporter of the GOP attack on the ballot initiative process, wrote in testimony on August elections last year. “This isn’t how democracy is supposed to work.”

The GOP attack on direct democracy in Ohio, where abortion is heavily restricted, resembles efforts underway across the country. In January alone, Missouri Republicans introduced a dozen bills aimed at undercutting the ballot initiative process and weakening citizen lawmaking.

Democracy Docket noted that two of the Republican-authored resolutions in Missouri would, like the proposed amendment in Ohio, “raise the threshold to approve constitutional amendments to 60%.”

According to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC), at least 139 bills that would impact the ballot initiative process have been introduced in state legislatures this year.

“Efforts to undermine and weaken ballot measures have been increasing since the 2016 election in response to progressive wins and people-powered democracy at the ballot box,” BISC said. “In many states, some politicians and wealthy special interests are trying to make it harder for voters to propose and pass ballot initiatives under the cover of so-called ‘reforms.’ These attacks have escalated and have become more nuanced, sophisticated, and would have deeper impacts on the initiative process.”

While efforts to limit the ballot initiative process succeeded in some states last year, they failed elsewhere. As Common Dreams reported, South Dakota voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have raised the threshold for passage of most ballot measures from a simple majority to 60%.

In Michigan, Republican lawmakers attempted to have an abortion rights ballot initiative tossed even though organizers collected a record-shattering number of signatures from state residents. The GOP sabotage effort was blocked in court, and Michigan voters ultimately approved the proposition in November by a decisive margin.

But Republicans elsewhere are plowing ahead. The Times reported Sunday that “the North Dakota legislature this month approved a bill boosting the signature requirement for proposed constitutional amendments and requiring them to win approval in both primary and general elections.”

“And in Arkansas, after voters last fall soundly rejected a constitutional amendment proposed by the legislature stiffening the requirements to get a measure on the ballot, the legislature simply passed new requirements as state law. Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed the law last month.”

The Arkansas law more than tripled the number of counties where signatures must be collected for a citizen initiative to qualify for the ballot.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, tweeted Sunday that Republicans are attacking the ballot initiative process because “they know that the American people will vote to ensure access to reproductive care.”

As the Times reported, “Republicans in Ohio have said openly that their efforts to make ballot amendments harder to pass are aimed at blocking abortion rights. They are putting their measure on the ballot in August, typically a time of low turnout. It will not include the word ‘abortion,’ which abortion rights supporters say will make it hard to engage their voters.”

The ACLU of Ohio warned that the Republican amendment would “enact minority rule” in the state.

“Republican lawmakers pushing these efforts want 41% of voters to block ballot initiatives that 59% of voters support,” the group said. “This is not democracy.”

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