Columbus, Ohio — The fraught politics of abortion helped turn a question about the August vote in Ohio that would make it harder to change the state constitution into a cauldron of misinformation and sowing fear.
State Issue 1, the only question on the ballot, calls for raising the threshold for passing future changes to the Ohio Constitution from a simple majority to 60%. Starting next year, it will also double the number of counties that must collect signatures, from 44 to all 88, and eliminate the 10-day grace period to close the gap in the total number of valid signatures submitted.
Republican state lawmakers and Republican election chiefs who have rushed to push the measure say the measure has nothing to do with thwarting the abortion rights question heading to a vote this fall. However, messages early in the summer on social media and in churches have repeatedly called for a yes vote on the August amendment “to preserve life” – and that is just one example of the loaded messages voters have faced during the campaign.
Ohio Women’s Defense, the fall abortion campaign, is airing a Pro-Problem 1 ad suggesting that workplace abortion rights advocates in the state “encourage minors to have sex reassignment surgery and want to circumvent parental consent.” The Fall Abortion Amendment would protect access to various forms of reproductive health care but does not address sex surgery, and the attorneys who drafted the amendment say Ohio’s parental consent law would not be affected.
Protesting Issue 1 groups also hit voters’ fears with messages against the 60% threshold. A spot by the Democratic political group’s Progressive Action Fund showed a couple groping steamily in their bedroom, then interrupted by a white-haired Republican congressman who had arrived to take their birth control. It ended with the caption: “Let the Republicans out of your bedroom. Vote No on August 8.”
Although the ad was based on concerns that the U.S. Supreme Court could restrict rights to home contraception and that Issue 1 would make it more difficult to include those in the Ohio state constitution, “the immediate, immediate issue is abortion,” said Susan Burgess, a political science professor at Ohio University.
Burgess said the various abortion communications around Issue 1 reflect a major problem facing Ohio Republicans: putting together an increasingly diverse voting bloc.
“It was a complex alliance of Protestants; it includes people on the far right, it includes libertarians and includes, you know, old Reagan Republicans,” she said. “They need to be able to talk about abortion to keep a certain part of their union together, but their clinging to the hardline abortion argument is not a political winner at this point.”
Issue 1 advocates’ conversations in the more targeted settings reflect that duality.
Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who supported the measure, previously called Issue 1 a “win for good government” that protects Ohioans from special interests outside of the state.
But he took a different tone at a Lincoln Day dinner in Seneca County in May, when he said the August measure was “100 percent about removing a radical, pro-abortion amendment from our constitution.” In an Associated Press interview, LaRose said that comment – now featured in advertisements across the state – was cut from a lengthy speech and taken out of context.
Aaron Baer, president of the Center for Christian Virtue, said on a radio show this month that his organization only connects Issue 1 to abortion with certain sections of Ohio voters.
“When we appeared on TV, was the commercial going to have an abortion? Probably not,” he told host Bob Frantz on “Always Right Radio.” Still, Baer said, when speaking to a conservative audience, “we’re hitting life hard because it really illustrates why you have to get excited and go to the polls.”
That two-way approach is reflected in the campaign’s first statewide ad for Issue 1, which launched Monday and avoids abortion. Instead, it emphasizes that amendments to the US Constitution require two-thirds of the vote while Ohio’s require a simple 50% plus one majority. Ohioans overwhelmingly voted to set a lower threshold in 1912, in a Radical Age response to rampant political corruption.
Kimberly Inez McGuire, executive director of Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equality, an advocacy group, said she believes Issue 1 advocates are downplaying abortion in their statewide message because they know public opinion is not on their side.
“We are seeing more and more legislators and opponents of abortion understand that their agenda is extremely unpopular with the American people,” she said. “We’re seeing special sessions, we’re seeing anti-abortion bills passed late at night, and we’re seeing these denials from people who are pushing for a measure designed to undercut democracy with the intention of damaging Ohio’s abortion practice.”
Abortion is easy to understand and understand — and thus can attract Ohioans to donate, volunteer and vote when they don’t mind an unseasonal election on an esoteric issue like how to amend the state constitution.
Smith said calling Issue 1 related to abortion also reflects the fact that its passage is pivotal to whether the November abortion issue is passed in Ohio. Amendments that protect access to abortion in other states often pass – but with less than 60% of the vote. An AP VoteCast poll last year found that 59 percent of Ohio voters said abortion should generally be legal.
Kayla Griffin, the Ohio state director of All Voting Is Local and an opponent of Issue 1, said her faction wants to keep the message on Issue 1 broader than just abortion.
“While abortion is currently being voted on, the minimum wage will be on the next vote,” she said. “We are bigger and our democracy is much bigger than a single issue, and we have to be able to navigate that when it comes to the ballot box.”
Voting rights groups and former Ohio chief justices are also working to amend the constitution to change Ohio’s broken redistricting system.
As both Issue 1 advocates and opponents sought voter support, some of their messages turned into misinformation.
“Ohio should vote on issue 1 to help prevent abortions until birth,” read a headline last week on LifeNews.com.
But the November abortion initiative won’t stop state lawmakers from restricting abortions after a fetus is viable outside the uterus, around 23 or 24 weeks.
Medical experts debate the concept of “until birth” abortion, saying that termination of a pregnancy at that stage is rare — only 0.7% of abortions in Ohio in 2021 occur after 21 weeks — and often involves drugs that induce early delivery, as distinct from surgical abortions. This procedure, also known as a medical abortion, usually only occurs if the fetus has a low probability of survival.
An email from Right to Life of Greater Cincinnati went a step further, claiming without evidence that sex traffickers and abortion providers were “evil twins” working together to “support and abet” each other.
Teresa Fedor, a Democrat and former state congressman who has supported Ohio’s sex-trafficking crackdown in the legislature, said she has found no striking link between sex trafficking and forced abortions in her 20 years of working on the issue.
“My view is that anti-reproductive healthcare advocates are so desperate to get past Issue 1, unfortunately, they will use a false story to influence their advocates,” she said in an email.
___ Swenson reports from Seattle. The Associated Press receives support from a number of private organizations to increase its coverage of elections and democracy. See more about AP’s democracy initiative here. AP is solely responsible for all content.