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Ohioans vote to codify abortion rights

Voters in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky also saw wins related to abortion rights Tuesday

Abortion rights supporters celebrate winning the referendum on the so-called Issue 1, a measure to enshrine a right to abortion in Ohio's Constitution, in Columbus, Ohio on Nov. 7, 2023.
Abortion rights supporters celebrate winning the referendum on the so-called Issue 1, a measure to enshrine a right to abortion in Ohio's Constitution, in Columbus, Ohio on Nov. 7, 2023. (Megan Jelinger/AFP via Getty Images))

Abortion rights supporters celebrated wins in four states Tuesday night, including the passage of a measure in Ohio that would add language to the state constitution enshrining the right to reproductive freedom, including abortion.

Ohio voters passed the constitutional amendment with 56.6 percent of voters supporting it, with all precincts reporting as of Wednesday morning. 

Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky also saw some wins related to abortion rights Tuesday. The state elections in Ohio and Virginia in particular attracted national attention, with many predicting the results could be a bellwether for 2024.

Ohio’s vote marks the latest time voters have codified abortion rights since the Supreme Court in 2022 overturned Roe v. Wade. The state’s efforts mirror those in California, Vermont and Michigan to codify abortion rights last year. Meanwhile, ballot efforts to restrict abortion were defeated in Montana, Kentucky and Kansas.

The last efforts to successfully limit abortion by ballot were constitutional amendments passed in Louisiana in 2020, and in Alabama and West Virginia in 2018 — before the overturning of Roe vs. Wade. 

While Ohio is the only state to vote directly on abortion access this year, advocates in at least four other states are aiming for similar votes in 2024. Abortion rights supporters are eyeing possible votes in Arizona, Colorado, Florida and Nevada.

“This incredible win proves what we’ve known since Dobbs: that voters are tired of seeing their politicians fail and are prepared to take on major fights to defend reproductive freedom themselves,” said Kelly Hall, executive director of the Fairness Project, a nonprofit that promotes economic and social justice issues via ballot initiatives. “Ballot measures are one of — if not the most — powerful tools we have to defend reproductive rights in a post-Roe nation, and this work will continue. 

Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters on Wednesday that the results showed voters stood for “individual freedoms and the promise of freedom of America” and, by extension, democracy.

“I think voters have been clear, regardless of whether they’re in a so-called red or blue state, that one does not have to abandon their faith or deeply held beliefs to agree the government should not be telling women what to do with their bodies,” Harris said.

Abortion rights groups largely outpaced their opponents in donations, according to the Ohio secretary of state’s campaign finance data. Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights, the coalition in favor of the measure, raised about $29 million.

Singer John Legend, who hails from Springfield, Ohio, recorded an ad for the group encouraging Ohioans to vote early for the issue.

Protect Women Ohio, a coalition of abortion opponents, raised about $10 million.

Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, joined his wife in an ad for the group encouraging voters to oppose the amendment.

Tuesday’s win for abortion rights advocates came after Ohio voters in August defeated an initiative that sought to change the threshold for voter-initiated referendums to change the Ohio constitution from 50 percent to 60 percent. Ohio lawmakers including Republican Sen. J.D. Vance had advocated for the change ahead of the November vote.    

Ohio law currently permits abortion until 22 weeks of pregnancy. The state’s six-week ban, which DeWine signed in 2019, has been paused while the state Supreme Court deliberated its fate.

Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America President Marjorie Dannenfelser said the loss in Ohio provides lessons for the next race.

“Moving forward in states where abortion will be on the ballot in 2024, pro-life, pro-woman coalitions will need to devote more resources to compassionate pro-life messages for women and their children, combating the campaign of fear from the other side,” said Dannenfelser.

Abortion opponents did celebrate one big win. Lynn Fitch, who defended Mississippi’s abortion ban in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, defeated Democrat Greta Kemp Martin in the race for Mississippi attorney general.

Larger scope

Abortion also played a role in other races. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat who won reelection Tuesday, targeted his opponent’s stance on abortion in an ad last month. Democrat Dan McCaffery was elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in a race that also focused on abortion stances.

“From Ohio to Virginia and Pennsylvania, voters across the political spectrum once again sent the clear message that politicians won’t get away with passing abortion bans and denying people access to essential health care,” said Deirdre Schifeling, chief political and advocacy officer for the American Civil Liberties Union. 

Virginia, where both chambers of the state legislature were up for reelection this week, also saw a focus on abortion-related campaigns. The state is one of the few in the South without a ban on most abortions, while Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has pushed for a 15-week ban.

Youngkin launched a $1.4 million ad campaign in October through his PAC, Spirit of Virginia, urging support for a 15-week abortion ban. Women Speak Out Virginia, a partner PAC of SBA Pro-Life America, announced a $1.5 million ad campaign in late October to support Republican candidates who support the 15-week ban.

On Tuesday, Democrats flipped control of the Virginia General Assembly and maintained control of the state Senate. In 2019, the state flipped control of both chambers to Democratic control forming a trifecta with then-Gov. Ralph Northam.

“We are deeply disappointed by last night’s results, which serve as a warning sign for the GOP heading into 2024,” Dannenfelser said of the Virginia results. “The true lesson from last night’s loss is that Democrats are going to make abortion front and center throughout 2024 campaigns. The GOP consultant class needs to wake up. Candidates must put money and messaging toward countering the Democrats’ attacks or they will lose every time.”  

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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