Ohio voted to protect abortion rights. Could Florida be next?

Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, abortion-rights campaigns have galvanized voters in state after state. It has become Democrats’ top issue ahead of the uncertain 2024 election cycle — and their best hope, especially after Ohio voters on Tuesday approved a measure to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution.

That triumphant streak has sparked campaigns for similar abortion measures in various or potentially swing states, including Arizona, Florida, Nevada and Pennsylvania. But none could be as enticing as Florida, which has increasingly slipped out of Democratic reach in electoral contests.

But getting the question on the ballot next year in the state is hardly guaranteed.

Like Ohio, Florida’s government is controlled by Republicans. Also, like Ohio, Florida has enacted a six-week abortion ban pending approval by the state Supreme Court. (That case centers on Florida’s existing 15-week ban, but upholding that limit would then trigger a six-week ban approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis in April.)

The parallels between the two states give Florida organizers hope for success, despite steep hurdles that include a court review of the proposed ballot measure and an expensive petition process. If Florida voters have a say on the abortion issue, organizers say, they’re likely to want to protect their rights, too.

“Florida has always been a deeply libertarian state,” said Anna Hochkammer, executive director of the Florida Coalition for Women’s Freedom. “‘Find your tribe, find your people, live your life – we’ll leave you alone.’ It’s part of the Florida culture. And Floridians flatly reject that the government should be involved in these decisions. It is deeply offensive to Floridians’ sense of independence and freedom.”

Since June 2022, when Roe was overturned, states have given voters a direct say on access to abortion, whether to protect abortion rights, weaken them, or explicitly exclude them from state constitutions. Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan voted to expand or retain abortion rights.

In Florida, a coalition of groups under the umbrella organization Floridians Protecting Freedom, including Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union, has collected just over half of the nearly 900,000 petition signatures it needs for a ballot measure that aims to limit “government interference in abortion ” before the fetus is considered viable, which is often around 24 weeks of gestation. Abortion was legal up to 24 weeks in Florida until last year.

The coalition raised about $9 million through the end of September, but says its next report will show more than $12 million has been raised. Most of the donations came from Florida, with limited interest from out-of-state donors who launched campaigns in Ohio and elsewhere.

The coalition raised more than $300,000 Wednesday after the Ohio victory, Ms. Hochkammer said, with more people clicking on the group’s fundraising emails or receiving calls.

“The phones started ringing and the pledges started pouring in,” she said. “I think there were a lot of people sitting on their money waiting to see what happened in Ohio. And we had a great day.”

Among the places where volunteers and paid petition collectors have found eager supporters are screenings of the movie “Barbie” and the Taylor Swift Eras Tour, both of which have feminism as a key theme and strong female leads, said Laura Goodhue, executive director of the Florida of the Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates.

The coalition still needs to collect — and the state must confirm — about 400,000 more signatures by February 1, which is a difficult and expensive task.

The ballot language must also be approved by the conservative-leaning Florida Supreme Court. The state’s Republican attorney general, Ashley Moody, announced her challenge to the measure last month.

She and several anti-abortion groups argued the measure was too broad, vague and misleading. Florida requires that ballot questions be clear and limited to one topic.

“This attempt to deceive the electorate of Florida should be rejected,” Ms. Moody wrote in a legal filing filed Oct. 31.

The ballot question, which would include a summary of the amendment that would be added to the state constitution if the initiative passes, would read in part: “No law shall prohibit, penalize, delay or restrict abortion before it is viable or when it is necessary to protect the health of the patient, as determined by the patient’s healthcare provider.” The question does not adequately define “durability”; whether “patient health” would include mental health; and who would be considered a “healthcare provider,” Ms. Moody argued.

“It’s abortion on demand for any reason,” said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, a conservative Christian group. “It’s not only extreme, it’s deceptive — and that’s the problem.”

Mr. Stemberger said there was a “very good chance” that the state Supreme Court, whose ideological balance has shifted from liberal to conservative, could reject the amendment. If not, his organization and others have already formed a political committee, Florida Voters Against Extremism, to prepare for the campaign.

“Ohio is just a reminder that we still have a lot of work to do,” he said. “We need to go back to the drawing board and explain to people why unborn children are valuable, why adoption is always the better option.”

Unlike Ohio, where abortion rights protections passed with about 57 percent of the vote, Florida requires citizen-led ballot initiatives to receive more than 60 percent of the vote to pass. University of North Florida Survey found last year that 60 percent of residents opposed the 15-week ban after being told it did not include exceptions for rape or incest.

Ms. Hochkammer said coalition polls show more than 70 percent of Floridians support the abortion rights measure, including 64 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of voters who supported former President Donald J. Trump.

Florida voters tended to support ballot measures that championed liberal causes, even while electing Republican leaders who in many cases later watered down or undermined the implementation of those measures when in office.

Until recently, Florida was considered the nation’s biggest presidential battleground, and the election was decided by a narrow margin, with former President Barack Obama winning the state twice. But Republicans have made gains: Mr. Trump won by more than three percentage points in 2020, and Governor DeSantis by 19 points, a landslide, last year.

Nevertheless, significant citizen-led constitutional measures have been achieved well after overcoming obstacles to getting on the ballot.

In 2020, voters supported a $15-an-hour minimum wage — and Mr. Trump. In 2018, they voted to restore voting rights to felons — and for Mr. DeSantis. In 2016, they voted to legalize medical marijuana—and for Mr. Trump.

“We are not a deeply conservative, extremist country,” Ms. Hochkammer said. “We’re a deeply rooted state, and the fact that our divisive election results have skewed people in a certain way shouldn’t mislead people about what the political appetites are in Florida.”

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