Why Ohio’s Abortion Ballot Issue Confuses Voters

Volunteers campaigning for a ballot initiative to establish a constitutional right to abortion stopped Alex Woodward at a market in Ohio to ask if they could expect her vote in November.

Ms Woodward said she was in favor of abortion rights and confirmed her support. But as the shareholders moved through the hall, she realized she wasn’t sure how to mark her ballot. “I think that’s a yes,” she said. “Maybe she isn’t?”

Anyone in Ohio could be forgiven for some confusion — the result of an avalanche of messages and countermessages, misinformation and complicated language about what the amendment is supposed to do, and even an entirely separate ballot measure with the same name just three months ago. All of this has abortion rights supporters worried in an off-year election race that has become the nation’s most watched.

But the Ohio measure is their toughest fight yet. It’s the first time voters in the red state are being asked to affirmatively vote “yes” on a constitutional amendment establishing abortion rights, rather than “no” to preserve the status quo established by the courts. Ohio voters have historically tended to reject ballot amendments.

Republicans who control the levers of state power have used their positions to try to influence the vote, first by calling a special election in August to try to raise the threshold for passage of the amendment on the ballot, and then when that failed, using language favored by anti- for abortion to describe the amendment on the ballot and in official state communications.

Anti-abortion groups, caught off guard by the wave of voter anger that immediately followed the court’s overturning of Roe, have had more time to sharpen their message. They have fueled fears of losing parental rights and allowing children transition surgeries, although the proposed amendment mentions neither.

Democrats nationally are looking to see if the anger that brought new voters to the party last year maintains enough momentum to help them win even red states in presidential and congressional races in 2024. And with abortion rights groups pushing similar measures on the ballot in red and purple states next year, anti-abortion groups hope they’ve found a winning strategy to stop them.

“Certainly, we know all eyes are on Ohio right now,” said Amy Natoce, spokeswoman for Protect Women Ohio, a group formed by national anti-abortion groups, including Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, to oppose the amendment.

With early voting underway since mid-October, the state has been abuzz with television and social media ads, multiple rallies a day and doorknobs littered with campaign literature, with each side accusing the other of being too extreme for Ohio.

A “yes” to the first question, the citizen-sponsored ballot initiative, pushed mostly by doctors, would amend the state constitution to establish the right to make “one’s own reproductive decisions,” including abortion.

The amendment specifically allows the state to prohibit abortion after viability, or around 23 weeks, when the fetus can survive outside the womb, unless the pregnant woman’s doctor determines the procedure is “necessary to protect the life or health of the pregnant woman.”

But that language does not appear on the ballot. Instead, voters see a summary from Secretary of State Frank LaRose, an anti-abortion Republican who pushed an August ballot measure to try to thwart the abortion rights amendment. That brief turns the viability provision on its head, saying the amendment “would always allow the abortion of an unborn child at any stage of pregnancy, regardless of viability.”

Other Republicans helped spread misinformation about the amendment. The attorney general, who opposes abortion, issued a 13-page analysis that, among other claims, said the amendment would overturn a law requiring parental consent for minors seeking abortions. (Constitutional experts say these claims are false. And the amendment would allow some restrictions on abortion.)

The ballots that Republicans put out in August trying to make it harder to pass are also called Question 1. Across the state, some lawns still have signs from abortion rights groups urging “No on Question 1.”

Abortion rights groups reminded voters of the ramifications of Ohio’s six-week abortion ban that was in effect for 82 days last year — and could go back into effect any day pending a state Supreme Court decision. They repeatedly mention a 10-year-old rape victim who traveled to Indiana for an abortion after doctors in Ohio refused to provide it because of the ban.

In the television ad, the couple recounts their ordeal when doctors told them at 18 weeks that their long-desired pregnancy would not survive, but that they could not have an abortion in Ohio, which also forced them to leave the state for care. : “What happened to us could happen to anyone.”

The “Yes” side also appealed to Ohioans’ innate conservatism about government overreach, going beyond traditional messages that see abortion as central to women’s rights. John Legend, the singer-songwriter and Ohio native whose wife Chrissy Teigen has spoken publicly about the abortion that saved her life, urged in a video message: “The first question will take politicians out of personal abortion decisions.”

On the “no” side, there is little mention of the six-week ban, or abortion. Instead, yard signs and billboards claim that the no vote protects parents’ rights. Protect Women Ohio has circulated messages on social media and in campaign literature arguing that because the amendment gives the right to “individuals” rather than “adults” to make their own reproductive decisions, it could lead to children receiving sex-reassignment surgery without parental consent — which constitutional scholars have also said it is false.

The anti-abortion party is trying to reach the conservative base and will have to win. In surveys in July and October, 58 percent of Ohioans they said they would vote for an amendment securing abortion rights, and that includes a majority of independents.

Kristi Hamrick, vice president of media and policy for Students for Life, which opposes abortion and has been “knocking on houses” on college campuses in Ohio, said the anti-abortion side has relied too much on “vague positions” to try win earlier ballot measures. “It wasn’t straightforward about what was at stake and how people were going to be hurt,” she said. “What’s at stake is whether there can be restrictions on abortion, whether we can have unfettered abortion.”

In Ohio, the anti-abortion side is leaning toward arguments that the amendment would encourage “abortion up until the moment of birth.” An ad that aired during the Ohio State-Notre Dame football game featured Donald Trump’s warning: “In the ninth month, you can take a baby and rip the baby out of the mother’s womb.”

Data show that late-term abortions are rare and are usually performed when doctors say the fetus will not survive. In Ohio, there were approximately 100 abortions after 21 weeks of pregnancy in 2020.

National groups have invested money, making this race unusually expensive for the off-year. Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights, a coalition of abortion rights groups that supports the amendment, has spent $26 million since Labor Day, nearly three times as much as Protect Women Ohio, and most of that money has come from outside the state.

At the market, the group of pediatricians who led the animation for the “yes” side mostly ran into people who had heard about the amendment and supported it.

One voter, Ashley Gowens, introduced herself to one of the doctors as “Stephanie’s mom,” thanking him for “standing up for my daughter’s rights.” Ms. Gowens worried that abortion rights supporters would be misled by the language on the ballot, or that they would not realize they had to vote again – and differently – after the August Republican-called election. “I know it was done on purpose,” she said. “The only way they could bring this down was to confuse people.”

David Pepper, the former chairman of the state Democratic Party, said he too fears the August election has drained energy and that anti-abortion anti-extremism messages will appeal to Ohioans’ reluctance to change their Constitution.

“You have to examine your arguments, and they all have to be pretty compelling for people to vote yes,” he said. “All you have to do to convince someone to vote ‘no’ is give them one reason.”

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