Abortion rights groups hope to build on their victories with new ballot measures

Abortion rights groups hope to build on their victories with new ballot measures

Abortion rights groups hope to build on their victories with new ballot measures

Abortion rights groups hope to build on their victories with new ballot measures

  • In 10 states, people are already working to get ballot measures on the ballot.
  • Abortion-rights groups are aiming for more wins in the next two years.
  • “This gives voters a voice” said Kelly Hall.

In 10 states, people are already working to get ballot measures on the ballot that would write abortion into their state constitutions.

After getting 100% of their ballot measures passed in the midterm elections last month, abortion-rights groups are aiming for more wins in the next two years.

The constitutions of Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, and South Dakota would be changed to include abortion rights if activists’ plans come to fruition.

All of these states ban or limit abortion, and it is also legal for citizens to put forward ballot measures that change the constitutions of their states. Abortion-rights supporters say it’s this important combination that makes them the best targets. This year, they won in all six states that had ballot measures about access to abortion.

“After the six-for-six victories, it’s clear that there’s a lot of energy and excitement about taking this directly to the people,” said Sarah Standiford, the national campaigns director for the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, which is the political arm of the reproductive rights group.

Advocates warn that the amount of work that goes into putting these kinds of measures on ballots varies a lot from state to state. In some states, like South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Ohio, groups have already written ballot language and are now looking at the deadlines for collecting signatures.


In other places, though, the work is much more basic. Advocates in states like Montana, Nebraska, and North Dakota say that they need to test messaging and language, figure out the political environment that could affect their success, and research deadlines and other criteria before deciding whether or not to move forward.

But public polls all over the country show that people overwhelmingly support abortion rights. Advocates and the ballot initiative groups they work with say that the citizen-led process is a key way to bridge the gap between the way voters feel about abortion and the restrictions that GOP-controlled state legislatures are pushing for.

“This gives voters a voice,” said Kelly Hall, the executive director of the Fairness Project, a non-profit group that helps progressive groups advance citizen-led ballot initiatives. “It means that you can put something on the ballot, like making abortion legal in a state, that you wouldn’t be able to get through your state’s elected officials.”

States with bans become important

In contrast to how laws are passed, citizen-led ballot initiatives depend almost entirely on the will of voters and their ability to get a certain number of signatures in support of proposed constitutional amendments. Often, the required number is a percentage of the total votes in a state’s most recent race for governor. Supporters say it is a great example of “direct democracy” because it better shows how voters feel about certain issues.

“Appealing directly to voters has a lot of potential,” said J.J. Straight, the deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Liberty Division. Along with other parts of the nonpartisan civil rights group, the Liberty Division is working with local groups to research ballot measures like these. “What we saw this year shows that the public and their lawmakers are often in different places.”


In Ohio, for example, a group of 1,400 doctors called Ohio Physicians for Reproductive Rights started a campaign last week called Protect Choice Ohio to get a citizen-initiated constitutional amendment on the ballot next November.

The group’s president, Dr. Marcela Azevedo, said in a statement, “Our goal is to send the amendment to the Ohio Attorney General as soon as possible for review and approval so that we can start collecting signatures in early February to put the issue on the ballot in 2023.”

After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, Ohio’s “heartbeat bill,” which effectively bans most abortions but makes exceptions for the health of the pregnant woman and ectopic pregnancies, went back into effect right away. However, a state judge is still blocking the law for now.

According to the group, the final language of the bill will try to “ensure that Ohioans have access to safe, legal, fair, and comprehensive reproductive medical care, including abortion.” By July 5, the group would have to get about 412,000 signatures, as required by Ohio law.

Local groups in South Dakota are working on a “Right to Abortion” initiative that would change the state constitution to allow abortion care during the first trimester of pregnancy, allow the state to “regulate” abortion care during the second trimester “only in ways that are reasonably related to the health of the pregnant woman,” and allow the state to “regulate or prohibit abortion” during the third trimester “except when it is necessary.”

After the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, abortions are illegal in South Dakota, unless a pregnant woman’s life is in danger. No exceptions are made for rape or incest.


South Dakota law says that groups need about 35,000 signatures one year before an election to get a ballot measure on the ballot. Groups can circulate petitions for signatures for up to a year, which means that an initiative can be filed as early as two years before the election day in question.

In Oklahoma, abortion-rights groups were working as recently as last week to add a “right to reproductive freedom” to the state constitution through a proposed amendment called “Question 828.” However, the organisers said they had stopped their work because they would rather start collecting signatures later.

Oklahoma has several different laws that make it illegal to have an abortion. One makes an exception to save the life of a pregnant woman, and the other makes an exception for rape and incest if the crime was reported to police.

At the same time, people who support abortion rights and the groups with which they work said that preliminary work is also being done in Florida, Missouri, and other states.

As part of these early efforts, lawyers argue over what the language should say. This is done to make it harder for state lawmakers and state judges to take away the right in the future.

Andrea Miller, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, which is working to promote citizen-led ballot initiatives, said, “It will be different in each state.”


Straight of the ACLU said, “What we’re looking for in each state’s measure is durability, passability, and impact.” “That it can stand up to any legal or legislative challenges that might come its way.”

(Also, several Democratic legislatures in blue states, like New York and New Jersey, are moving toward putting abortion rights in their states’ constitutions on the ballots next year.)

Many of the groups interviewed for this article, both locally and nationally, refused to give specific details about their early-stage efforts. They said they were afraid that groups opposed to abortion rights in those states would use any new information to help them legally and organizationally stop ballot initiatives from being put on the ballot.

Several groups that are against abortion rights said they would work hard to stop pro-abortion ballot initiatives. They also made it clear that they would focus their own efforts to limit access to abortion on the state legislative process.

Sue Liebel, the director for state affairs at Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, said in a written statement that there probably won’t be as many pro-life ballot initiatives as pro-abortion ballot initiatives. “There is support for pro-life laws to move through the legislative process, which is exactly where these policies should be talked about.”

Adding to what went well in 2022


The efforts come after a very successful year for ballot initiatives on abortion rights in states of all political stripes.

In Kentucky, which is a stronghold for Republicans and has a near-total ban on abortion, voters turned down a plan to change the state constitution to say that there is no right to abortion.

Voters in Michigan backed a measure that made reproductive freedom, like abortion and birth control, a state constitutional right. The measure made a state law from 1931 that says abortion is illegal and there are no exceptions for rape or incest illegal.

In Montana, voters turned down a ballot measure that would have made it illegal for health care providers not to take “reasonable steps” to save babies born alive, even if they were born after an abortion attempt.

Voters in two Democratic states, California and Vermont, decided to protect the right to have an abortion in their constitutions.

In August, voters in deep red Kansas turned down a proposed change to the state constitution that would have taken away protections for reproductive rights.


Advocates for abortion rights said that now that the Dobbs decision is set in stone, they will continue to bet that voters who care about abortion rights will continue to put the issue at the top of their minds when they vote in the next few elections.

“The issue of reproductive rights is a winner. This year, it was all over the news. Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, the executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which works with progressive groups to help move forward citizen-led ballot measures, said that the Dobbs decision had a big effect. “One of the most interesting things we saw [in 2022] was how ballot measures can change and bring people together, and how they can often work across party lines.

“We know that about two-thirds of Americans support reproductive rights and access to abortion, which means we have a great chance.”


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