Abortion Rights Are at the Center of Ohio GOP’s Latest Attack on Democracy

Red background with light blue-tinted shape of Ohio with elephant kicking through the state shape and an image of people protesting and holding up signs that read "WE WON'T GO BACK"

You don’t have to spend much time paying attention to politics in Ohio to understand that, when it comes to protecting their outsized grips on political power, there’s almost nothing Republicans won’t do. And when it comes to protecting their out-of-touch hyper-conservative legislative agenda, they’ll pull out all the stops. That has been made quite apparent recently as Republicans have waged a brazen attack on direct democracy in the hopes of derailing a people-powered effort to legalize abortion in the aftermath of the fall of Roe.

The toolbox Ohio Republicans have at their disposal to ensure voters never get a real say in our political future is unfortunately incredibly well stocked. During the last redistricting cycle — despite Ohioans overwhelmingly supporting two different reforms meant to curb partisan gerrymandering — Republicans successfully deployed enough delay tactics and lawless disobedience to force Ohio to vote under illegal maps that gave Republicans historic supermajorities in both state legislative chambers.

And while you might think that managing to bypass constitutional requirements — and seven state Supreme Court orders — with maps that gave them a staggering 70% of seats in the capitol despite having won just 54% of the vote in the last decade would be enough, you have to remember that there is no limit in Republicans’ war on democracy. No, squashing their opposition and voters under illegally rigged maps is only the starting point.

Once they’re locked into unearned supermajorities, Republican lawmakers get to work in legislative sessions where they pass bills that undermine our democracy, create discriminatory barriers to the ballot box and implement policies that are out of step with Ohioans’ values. And voting them out simply isn’t an option because Republicans have masterfully drawn themselves into entirely safe seats where their only real political competition comes in the form of partisan primary races. Heads they win, tails we lose.

To be fair, though, Ohio voters aren’t totally defenseless when it comes to providing a check on an out-of-control Legislature thanks to constitutional language from 1912 that bestows us with a right to direct democracy. 

For more than a century, Ohioans have enjoyed the right to go directly to the ballot to either overturn legislation we disagree with or to amend our state constitution outright — each with a requirement for a simple majority vote to win. The idea behind both is that it is the people of this state — and not its politicians — who have the ultimate power to decide our political future. 

Republicans have made explicit that their chief objective is to stop voters from using our right to direct democracy to support abortion rights and to fight against the gerrymandered maps that hobble us from making progress.

But now that we voters might utilize that process to enshrine policies that extremist Republicans disagree with, they have set their sights on wiping it out. For them, a simple majority rule for constitutional amendments simply won’t do; they’re instead working to crank up the win threshold to a supermajority with an expressed interest in protecting against the “mob rule” of 50% plus one. Yes, a state senator actually did suggest that requiring a simple majority to win an election — like, say, the one when he was elected — was “mob rule.” Yeesh.

So, why suddenly after 111 years are Republicans laser focused on instituting a new 60% threshold? Well, that depends on who you ask. 

The Republican sponsors of the joint resolutions claim their proposals “would simply give Ohioans the opportunity to prevent well-funded, out-of-state special interests from manipulating our founding document.” An oft-cited example of these special interests that can run amok is the two times casinos successfully lobbied to get the specific geographic addresses for their new business ventures amended into our state constitution. To be clear, I don’t necessarily think that our constitution should be used to advance such specific business interests, but I’m also old enough to remember that not a single Republican organized any sort of opposition campaign to either of those ballot issues. Regardless, Ohio voters agreed on the need to protect our constitution against this sort of tomfoolery because just eight years ago — and in direct response to it — we amended our constitution with an explicit anti-monopoly ballot measure.

Republicans warn that our current anti-special interest constitutional language, though, is not enough to safeguard the document. And, to back them up, a few proponents of their proposals came in recently to testify about the bills. It is surely just a coincidence, though, that those proponents all happen to be lobbyists from the Buckeye Firearm Association, Ohio Right to Life, the Center for Christian Virtue and the American Center for Law & Justice (a notably out-of-state group from Washington, D.C.). If you’re failing to see the irony here, I’ll borrow a succinct headline authored by Ohio reporter Morgan Trau: “Special interest groups seek to protect constitution from special interest groups, special interest groups say.”

On the other side of the conversation is a growing list of more than 200 Ohio-based organizations that are wise enough to see through Republican arguments to uncover what this is really all about: kneecapping the power of Ohio voters. Among the opponents are the folks working to get a pro-choice initiative on the ballot this November that would enshrine abortion rights into the state constitution. 

This is really where it all comes together on the 60% number: At the end of last year, a public poll came out showing that 59% of Ohioans would support legalizing a state constitutional right to abortion. And just a couple weeks after pro-choice groups announced their intention of working to get an abortion issue onto the ballot, Republicans — led by the state’s top elections official, Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R), who’s gearing up for a yet-to-be-announced U.S. Senate bid — announced their plans to nullify citizen-led ballot efforts. But you don’t have to take my word that they’re using abortion as a proxy in their latest attack on democracy; the Republicans have freely admitted it themselves. In multiple letters they’ve sent to each other, Republicans have made explicit that their chief objective is to stop voters from using our right to direct democracy to support abortion rights and to fight against the gerrymandered maps that hobble us from making progress.

analysis Ohio’s New Voter Suppression Law Unpacked

And, like I said, the Republican toolbox to silence voters is well stocked and these 60% threshold proposals are but one tool they’ve pulled out recently to derail the abortion ballot issue efforts. The other is a proposed bill in the Ohio Senate that would resurrect special August elections, which were nearly outlawed just four months ago by Republican legislators as part of a massive voter suppression bill most widely known for containing the country’s strictest voter identification rules. At the time — just last December — Republicans argued that August special elections don’t provide enough bang for their buck; abysmal voter turnout doesn’t justify the costs to administer the elections. LaRose went so far as to characterize them as “unnecessary election[s] for our county boards to administer” since “just a handful of voters end up making big decisions [which] isn’t how democracy is supposed to work.” So imagine how surprising it is to see LaRose singing a completely different tune about those same types of August elections now that it means he and his hyper-conservative pals could derail efforts of pro-choice advocates later this year. At a recent press conference, LaRose defended the efforts to rehabilitate these special elections and tried to tamp down criticism about his (and other Republicans’) complete about-face on the issue, going so far as to suggest that statewide August elections aren’t all that rare. In actuality the last — and only — time Ohioans were faced with a statewide constitutional amendment vote in August was 97 years ago in 1926.

If you ask me, the special interests the Republicans are so afraid of are actually just the voters. In the last century, Ohioans from across the political spectrum have utilized our right to direct democracy to raise the minimum wage, overturn right-to-work legislation, protect access to affordable health care, demand a fair redistricting process and maps and establish term limits on elected officials. In short, we’ve used it to make policy decisions that actually reflect our values and that address our biggest concerns in the face of a legislative body that refuses to do so. And now we might use it to legalize abortion because, as it turns out, that’s what the vast majority of us voters want.

Legislators return to work after a two-week spring break this week with two hearings and a possible vote scheduled on at least one of the direct democracy attack bills — a common sign that Republicans are moving it quickly for passage. Whether some of them are able to deny Ohio voters a say on the issue of personal autonomy and the right to make health care decisions on our own remains to be seen.

Katy Shanahan is an attorney and activist in her home state of Ohio where she continues to fight for fair maps and expansive voting laws in the Buckeye State. As a contributor to Democracy Docket, Shanahan writes about the state of voting rights in Ohio as well as redistricting both in Ohio and across the country.