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Struggles for Voting Rights Will Shape the Fate of Abortion Access

In places like Ohio, partisan gerrymandering has paved the way for aggressive abortion restrictions.

Demonstrators are gathered outside of the Texas State Capitol during a voting rights rally on the first day of the 87th Legislature's special session on July 8, 2021, in Austin, Texas.

State-level advocates are at the front lines of multiple intersecting battles in the larger quest to protect democracy. Often covered as separate and distinct considerations, the systematic attack on voting rights and abortion access are connected to the ongoing program of eroding constitutionally protected freedom and rights afforded to all individuals.

“When we think about voting rights and reproductive rights, we have to look no further than Texas,” said Jennifer Driver, senior director of reproductive rights at the State Innovation Exchange (SiX), a national resource center that aims to support state legislators in passing transformative policy.

Driver added: “It is no mere coincidence that the same week that Texas implemented SB-8 [Senate Bill 8, which bars all abortions after six weeks of pregnancy], they also pass an extremely problematic anti-voter bill. And what we know is that voting is an accountability measure. We vote for politicians who are going to represent our best interests.”

The intersection of these issues demonstrates the importance of protecting civil liberties and human rights to uphold democracy. Democracy is not a fixed point, but more of a practice that requires deliberate efforts to maintain.

And part of that practice and effort involves showing up for the people and issues that matter to our communities. Through its Reproductive Freedom Leadership Council, the State Innovation Exchange pulled together hundreds of legislators to join an amicus brief supporting legal abortion in the upcoming Supreme Court Case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

The State Innovation Exchange “organized the largest state legislator amicus briefs submitted to an abortion case in this country’s history,” Driver told Truthout. “Nearly 900 state legislators sign on to say to the court, ‘We want you to uphold the fundamental rights to abortion’.”

Driver says working with state legislators is really critical in elevating the connection between voting rights and reproductive rights.

The State Innovation Exchange “has been working both with legislators who are actively trying to protect abortion rights in their states and also the right to vote and push back against the redistricting that’s happening in states across the country,” Driver said.

In places like Ohio, partisan gerrymandering has paved the way for aggressive abortion restrictions. The Ohio Capital Journal describes the result of this gerrymandering as changing the landscape to benefit conservatives and pave the way for anti-abortion legislation to pass.

Aileen Day, communications director for Planned Parenthood of Ohio, described the issue as both simple and complicated at the same time.

“A majority of Ohioans believe abortion should be legal and accessible,” Day said. “Despite this, the Ohio Legislature is majority anti-abortion. This is possible because we don’t pick our legislatures. Gerrymandering allows our legislatures to pick us and give themselves disproportionate power.”

Day spoke with Truthout while en route to a protest of an Ohio Senate hearing on a trigger ban, which outlaws abortion in the event Roe v. Wade is struck down. Last month, the Ohio Senate moved forward a bill that does just that.

An October 2020 poll showed over 50 percent of Ohio voters believe abortion should be legal, while only 38 percent thought it should be illegal all or most of the time. Data published in July 2019 showed strong support for abortion despite the pre-viability ban proposed in the legislature.

“With more Republicans in our legislatures, that means more bills restricting and banning reproductive health care get signed into law, but with the addition of more extreme conservatives in our legislature, that means extreme bills banning reproductive health care get signed into law,” Day said.

Day shared that partisan gerrymandering contributed to more Republicans in the legislature and the restrictive approach paved the way for extreme ideologues to join the ranks. According to Day, there have been 30 anti-abortion and anti-reproductive health care bans and restrictions in Ohio in the past 10 years.

Those restrictions include state-mandated counseling and a 24-hour waiting period, forcing people seeking an abortion travel to a clinic twice. This can be burdensome for those who live in communities without a clinic. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 93 percent of Ohio counties did not have an abortion clinic in 2017, accounting for 55 percent of women age 15-44 in the state.

Day said the new Ohio district map gives Republicans over two-thirds of the legislative seats despite only winning 55 percent of the vote share in 2020. The ACLU of Ohio, the League of Women Voters of Ohio and the A. Phillip Randolph Institute sued last month challenging the new map.

“Redistricting should not be a one-sided, rigged political process. Voters should pick their politicians,” Alora Thomas-Lundborg, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement. “Politicians should not pick their voters.”

Litigation is often a last resort in ensuring values of fundamental fairness and constitutional protections are upheld. And as states like Mississippi, Kentucky and Georgia are awaiting the outcome of federal appeals processes, including Supreme Court decisions, organizers continue to move forward.

In 2019, the Georgia Legislature passed a sweeping elections bill, including an overhaul of the voting machines, and a six-week abortion ban. Both were fiercely fought by reproductive health advocates arguing Georgia’s six-week abortion ban is pending at the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and is on hold until Dobbs is decided by the Supreme Court.

“Conservative Republicans don’t give a sh*t about reproductive choice and reproductive rights,” Nse Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project and the New Georgia Project Action Fund said. “It’s a part of the culture wars. And they know that they can use it to drive up turnout among evangelicals who make up a significant portion of their base.”

Manipulation of maps, and legislators picking their constituencies instead of the other way around keeps states locked in a regressive posture. As both Day and Ufot explained, communities of color are grouped in ways that limit their power and undermines the ability to shift legislative control.

“The only way for them to hold on to power is to take a sledgehammer to our election,” Ufot told Truthout. “That way they keep people on their toes, keep people fighting for their dignity and their humanity — things that they already have, which are already ensconced and enshrined in the Bill of Rights and in our Constitution.”

As a part of the Amplify Georgia campaign, which aims to expand and protect abortion access in the Peach State, the New Georgia Project co-produced a Georgia Reproductive Justice Voter Toolkit helping voters find candidates committed to helping communities not only survive but thrive.

Efforts like voter toolkits are important to cut through the deep misinformation used to whip right-wing voters into a frenzy. From claims of stolen elections to fabrications about gestational staging in abortion and claims of fetal pain with no basis in science, there is no waiting for magical federal or court intervention.

“We are talking about government and nation destabilizing disinformation campaigns,” Ufot said. “We’re talking about major fundamental, world-changing, world-threatening democracy and attacks on our elections.”

Paraphrasing the late Toni Morrison, Ufot says that white supremacy functions as a distraction to keep us from doing our work and shifting society forward in a way that uplifts people across the board instead of simply enriching a select few. Policies that permit people to exercise their rights and protect their personal well-being are determined by the people who hold seats of power.

When focused on maintaining partisan power, instead of fair representation of people and their interests, redistricting can enshrine power and tyranny of the few. Collective organizing of groups like the New Georgia Project, state Planned Parenthood staff and the State Innovation Exchange can provide a stopgap where federal intervention is delayed.

“We are seeing how conservative legislators at the state level have had this playbook for a very long time,” Driver said. She explained that people have relied on the federal system, whether the courts or Congress, to protect rights, but the worst attacks are happening at the state level. “We are reminding people of the power of the state legislature,” Driver concluded.

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