Abortion Access Keeps Winning Elections

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Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, abortion access has fared very well when it has appeared on the ballot.

Voters in California, Michigan and Vermont approved abortion-rights amendments to their state constitutions last year. In Kansas and Kentucky — both red states — voters rejected measures that could have led to bans. In Wisconsin this year, the candidate favoring abortion access easily won a judicial election focused on the issue.

The 2024 elections offer supporters of abortion rights an opportunity to continue their winning streak. There are 10 states that both significantly restrict abortion (or may soon) and allow citizen-sponsored ballot initiatives, including Florida, Ohio and Arizona. Placing measures on the ballots there offers progressives a possible double victory — to expand access and energize 2024 turnout among Democratic voters.

But it remains unclear how many of these states will hold referendums.

Advocates have not yet collected the signatures they need in most states, nor have they started a national fund-raising campaign for the effort. At this point, some observers say they would be surprised if even five of the 10 states held initiatives next year.

The situation has the potential to be a major missed opportunity for the abortion-rights movement. One progressive activist told us it would be “political malpractice.”

What explains the apparent lack of urgency? In interviews, some activists said that placing a measure on a ballot took time and money, and that they wanted to make sure the initiatives used language that would survive legal challenges. “You don’t get two bites at this apple,” Sarah Standiford of Planned Parenthood Action Fund said.

Other advocates pointed to internal disagreements and disorganization in the movement that have delayed action. The movement has not been able to agree on a national strategy, including whether ballot initiatives should use the word “women” and how far into pregnancy abortion should remain legal.

“There is just not the command and control that other movements have had,” another progressive activist said. In the push for same-sex marriage, by contrast, a few major donors and activists played a coordinating role and insisted on urgency.

(Related: “Many reproductive-rights advocates still believe that Planned Parenthood’s agenda is too narrow and too cautious,” Eyal Press writes in The New Yorker. Audm subscribers can listen to that article.)

In the rest of today’s newsletter, we look more closely at the 10 states.

Initiatives seem most likely to happen soon in two states.

In Ohio, a coalition of abortion rights groups is collecting signatures to place an initiative on the ballot this year that would protect access through roughly the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. For now, most abortions remain legal in Ohio, thanks to a court ruling blocking a ban.

In South Dakota, organizers are optimistic that they can collect the signatures needed for an initiative next year. It is a compromise measure that would seek to reinstate the minimum access required by the Roe v. Wade decision. All abortions would be legal in the first trimester (roughly 12 weeks), and some would be in the second trimester.

In several other states, efforts have begun, but they’re less advanced.

In Missouri, advocates have not yet settled on one approach. Some petitions — an early step to putting an initiative on the ballot — would protect most abortion access until 24 weeks of pregnancy. Others would be narrower and let the state enact parental consent laws.

In Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed a near-total ban, advocates are hoping to place an initiative on the ballot that would allow most abortions until 24 weeks. But the state’s pro-marijuana movement helps highlight the slowness of the effort: Organizers of a 2024 ballot initiative to legalize marijuana have already raised $30 million and collected nearly all the required signatures — while organizers of an abortion initiative are just getting started.

Arizona has tough rules for ballot initiatives, requiring hundreds of thousands of signatures on a petition. “That said, we think this fight is more than worth it,” said Ezra Levin, a founder of Indivisible, a progressive group that’s part of the effort. Levin explained that an initiative could both protect abortion access and generate enough Democratic turnout to help President Biden win an important swing state.

There appears to be less activity in several other states: Arkansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota or Oklahoma. (In Montana, as in Ohio, court rulings have so far prevented bans from taking effect.)

In Oklahoma, activists submitted language for a petition last year, but withdrew it a few months later, saying they needed more preparation.

Abortion opponents aren’t sitting still. In several states, they are trying to reduce the chances an initiative can pass, as our colleagues Kate Zernike and Michael Wines have explained.

In both Missouri and Ohio, Republican officials want to change the law so any ballot initiative will need 60 percent of the vote to pass. (Florida has had such a law for almost two decades.) Missouri officials are also pushing for ballot language that would summarize an initiative as allowing “dangerous, unregulated and unrestricted” abortions.

“There’s one reason for all of this,” said Mallory Schwarz, the executive director of Pro-Choice Missouri, referring to the opponents. “They know abortion access is popular.”

The bottom line: Polls show that most residents of red and purple states support some abortion restrictions — but most also support some abortion access. Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, opinion has shifted left.

Even in many conservative states, ballot initiatives to expand abortion rights would have a good chance of receiving 50 percent of the vote. And 60 percent is not out of the question.

Nonetheless, some states may not hold initiatives anytime soon.

For more: These Times maps track abortion laws in every state.

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