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Abortion rights groups look to new ballot measures in 2023-2024

Boosted by a perfect ballot metrics record in last month’s midterm elections, abortion rights groups are aiming for more victories over the next two years.

Activists are already planning citizen ballot initiatives that would enshrine abortion rights in the constitutions of 10 states: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Dakota.

These states all ban or restrict abortion, and it is also legal for citizens to initiate ballot proposals that change state constitutions. It’s a crucial combination that makes them the best targets, according to abortion rights advocates, who won victory this year in the six states that have introduced abortion access ballot initiatives.

“After the six-for-six wins, there’s clearly a lot of energy and enthusiasm to bring this directly to the people,” said Sarah Standiford, director of national campaigns for the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the policy arm of parenthood. . rights group.

Advocates warn that the intensity of efforts to place such measures on ballots varies widely from state to state. In some states, like South Dakota, Oklahoma and Ohio, groups have already drafted ballot language and are assessing timelines for collecting signatures.

In others, however, the work is much more preliminary. Advocates from states like Montana, Nebraska and North Dakota warn they need to test messaging and language, determine political environments that could determine success, and research timelines and other criteria before deciding to go. forward.

But with public polls across the country showing overwhelming support for abortion rights, advocates and the ballot initiative groups they work with say the citizen-led process is a crucial vehicle that provides the opportunity to reconcile the gap between voters’ favorable attitudes toward abortion and the restrictions advanced by GOP-controlled state legislatures.

“It empowers voters who feel their elected representatives are not prioritizing issues that are important to them,” said Kelly Hall, executive director of the Fairness Project, a nonprofit that helps progressive groups advance citizen voting initiatives. “It means you can put something on the ballot, like enshrining the right to abortion in a state, that otherwise couldn’t go through your state’s political representation.”

States with bans appear as priorities

Unlike the process of passing legislation, the citizen vote initiative process relies almost entirely on the will of voters and their ability to collect a specific number of signatures in favor of proposed constitutional amendments (often the required number is a percentage of the total votes in a state’s last gubernatorial race). Proponents call it a shining example of “direct democracy” that more accurately reflects voters’ attitudes on certain issues.

“There’s a lot of promise in appealing directly to voters,” said JJ Straight, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Liberty Division, which, along with other units of the nonpartisan civil rights group, works with local organizations to research such ballot measures. “What we saw [this year] demonstrates that the public is often in a different space than its legislators.

In Ohio, for example, a group of 1,400 physicians called Ohio Physicians for Reproductive Rights launched an effort last week — Protect Choice Ohio — to put a citizen-initiated constitutional amendment on the ballot next November.

“Our goal is to submit the amendment to the Ohio Attorney General for review and approval as soon as possible so that in early February we can begin collecting the signatures we need to place the question on the ballot in 2023,” the group’s chairman, Dr. Marcela Azevedo, said in a statement.

Ohio’s “heartbeat bill” — which effectively bans most abortions, though it includes exceptions for the pregnant woman’s health and in cases of ectopic pregnancies — was reinstated immediately after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June; the law remains temporarily blocked by a state judge.

The eventual wording of the measure will seek to “ensure that Ohioans have access to safe, legal, equitable and comprehensive reproductive health care, including abortion,” according to the group. Under Ohio law, the group is expected to collect about 412,000 signatures by July 5.

In South Dakota, local groups are working on an “Abortion Rights” initiative that would amend the state constitution to include language that would allow abortion care during the first trimester of pregnancy, allow the state to ‘regulate’ second trimester abortion care ‘only as reasonably related to the health of the pregnant woman’ and allow the state to ‘regulate or prohibit abortion’ in the third trimester trimester “except when necessary” to save the life of the pregnant woman.

After the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, all abortions in South Dakota are illegal except when a pregnant woman’s life is in danger. There are no exceptions for rape or incest.

Under South Dakota law, to place a ballot measure, groups must collect about 35,000 signatures a year before an election. Groups are allowed to circulate signature petitions for up to a year, meaning an initiative can be filed as early as two years before the targeted Election Day.

In Oklahoma, abortion rights groups were working as recently as last week to place a proposed amendment — called Question 828 — that sought to add a “right to reproductive freedom” to the state constitution. state, but organizers said they had suspended efforts, saying they would prefer to start the signature-gathering process later.

Oklahoma has several different abortion bans on its books. One makes an exception to save the life of a pregnant woman, while another makes an exception for rape and incest if they have been reported to law enforcement.

Meanwhile, abortion rights advocates and the ballot initiative groups they work with said preliminary efforts are also underway in Florida, Missouri and other states.

These kinds of early efforts include legal wrangling over what the language would say – a process that is intended to limit any kind of future efforts by state legislators and jurists to restrict the law.

“It will be a unique calculation in each state,” said Andrea Miller, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, which works to advance citizen vote initiatives.

Straight from the ACLU said, “What we’re looking for is durability, practicality, impact” to the extent of each state. “That he can endure the challenges that may come his way legally or legislatively.”

(Separately, several Democratic legislatures in blue states, including New York and New Jersey, have moved to place ballot measures next year that would enshrine abortion rights in their state constitutions.)

Many groups, both local and national, interviewed for this article declined to provide specific details about their early-stage efforts, citing concerns that groups opposed to abortion rights in those states might seize any new information to help their own efforts, legally. and organizationally, to thwart the placement of ballot initiatives.

Several anti-abortion groups have said they will actively fight pro-abortion ballot initiatives while signaling that they will focus their own efforts to restrict abortion access efforts to the state legislative process. .

“You probably won’t see as many pro-life ballot initiatives as pro-abortion initiatives,” Sue Liebel, director of state affairs at Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, said in a written statement. “Pro-life laws have support to move forward in the legislative process, exactly where those policies should be debated.”

Building Success in 2022

These efforts follow an extremely successful year for abortion rights ballot initiatives in states across the political spectrum.

In Kentucky, a Republican stronghold that has a near-total abortion ban, voters have rejected a move to amend the state constitution to explicitly declare there is no right to abortion. .

In Michigan, voters backed a measure guaranteeing a state constitutional right to reproductive freedom, including abortion and contraception. The measure effectively invalidated a 1931 state law that prohibited abortion without exception for rape or incest.

In Montana, voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have criminalized health care providers if they failed to take “reasonable steps” to save infants born alive, including after attempted abortions.

Meanwhile, voters in two Democratic states, California and Vermont, have chosen to formally protect abortion rights in their constitutions.

Earlier in August, voters in ruby-red Kansas overwhelmingly rejected a proposed amendment that would have removed reproductive rights protections in the state constitution.

Nationwide, the NBC News exit poll showed that Americans cite abortion, second only to inflation, as the most important issue motivating their votes.

Abortion rights advocates said that with the permanent Dobbs ruling, they will continue to bet that voters who care about those rights will continue to prioritize the issue in the voting booth in future election cycles.

“Reproductive rights are a winning issue. He made headlines this year. The Dobbs decision had a huge impact,” said Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which works with progressive organizations to help advance citizen vote measures. “One of the unique things we saw [in 2022] is the transformative and unifying effects of ballot measures and how they can often cross party lines.

“And what we know – that roughly a majority of Americans actually support reproductive rights and access to abortion – means we have an incredible opportunity.”

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