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The Authoritarian Agenda Behind the Scheme to Attack Democracy and Abortion in Ohio

A campaign sign reading "No on Issue 1."
More than 3 million voters rejected an attempt to weaken their power, but our work is far from over.
A campaign sign reading "No on Issue 1."
Deirdre Schifeling,
Chief Political and Advocacy Officer,
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August 9, 2023

Yesterday, Ohio voters took to the polls for an unusual summertime special election. The only question before them was whether or not to raise the threshold for passing citizen-initiated constitutional amendments from a simple majority to 60 percent — but much more than a procedural reform was on the ballot. Extreme legislators in Ohio led a concerted attack on both abortion rights and democracy. Despite their blatant effort to change the rules and strip away Ohio voters’ rights, in a stunning and historic display of democracy in action, over three million voters turned out across the state and ultimately rejected the measure by a wide margin. But our work is far from over. We need all hands on deck to pass a ballot measure that will enshrine reproductive freedom in the Ohio Constitution during the upcoming election in November.

While we revel in the victory of last night, a look at how we got here reveals a long-term agenda. Republican legislators started this year by banning August special elections because of their high cost and low voter participation rates, but when Ohioans began collecting signatures to put a measure on the ballot in November to protect abortion rights, lawmakers did an about face and changed the rules to protect their extremist agenda. Hoping that the same low voter turnout they railed against would be a boon to their side, legislators hastily scheduled a last minute, vacation-season election to move the goalpost on the November reproductive freedom measure.

Unfortunately, attacks on democracy in order to push an extreme, unpopular agenda are not new in Ohio. In 2015 and 2018, Ohio voters overwhelmingly passed two constitutional amendments to reform redistricting efforts and ban partisan gerrymandering in the state. Ohio Republicans blatantly ignored these new amendments, and redrew the state’s congressional and state legislative maps to favor their party and hoard political power by any means necessary. Despite the Ohio Supreme Court ruling seven different district maps unconstitutional, the GOP legislative majority ignored the court and ran elections using unconstitutional maps. This month’s special election is a page from the same authoritarian, make-up-your-own-rules playbook.

But hundreds of thousands of Ohio voters recognized these efforts for exactly what they were and were undeterred at every step of the process. Just last month, advocates submitted nearly 700,000 signatures from Ohioans to place a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to enshrine reproductive freedom into the state’s constitution. At the same time, countless volunteers across the state began talking with their friends and family, knocking on doors, and showing up at community events to highlight the stakes of both the August and November elections. These herculean organizing efforts echo those we saw in Michigan last year, where a grassroots coalition of advocates successfully put reproductive freedom on the ballot, and voters chose to amend their state constitution.

As extreme lawmakers continue to fear that the will of voters will prevail against an anti-abortion and anti-democratic agenda, they keep deploying tactics to silence and take power from women, people of color, and other vulnerable communities. This is what a slow motion authoritarian regime looks like. And it’s happening across our country.

Similar moves to rig the rules can be seen in Arizona, Florida, Idaho, South Dakota, and Arkansas. As in Ohio, these attacks on our democratic process are also a clear attack on reproductive freedom. Diminishing the ability of voters to amend their constitutions through statewide ballot initiatives following the Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade is a clear statement from anti-abortion lawmakers: there is no limit to their efforts to stop voters who disagree with them from participating in our democracy.

These efforts are strategic and deliberate. The same lawmakers who are rigging the rules are also restricting voters’ ability to vote, working to limit what books we can read in public libraries or teach in public schools, banning trans people from accessing gender-affirming care or participating in school sports, and criminalizing abortion care. Make no mistake: we are on the precipice of a true authoritarian regime, and we have to stop it. This crisis of democracy is not business or politics as usual, and our response must mirror the urgency of this moment.

We know that when voters do get to decide, they choose reproductive freedom, and they choose democracy. Last night was proof that when the people mobilize and organize to defend our essential liberties, we all win. At the ACLU, we will continue to work with our partners on the ground in Ohio to fight to enshrine reproductive freedom in the state constitution, fight back against our opposition’s misinformation campaign to confuse voters, and galvanize a broad movement to protect abortion rights — just as we did in Michigan. We will fight with every tool at our disposal in a whole-of-organization response, because to durably safeguard abortion, we must durably protect and strengthen our democracy.

Paid for by American Civil Liberties Union, Inc. in coordination with Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights.

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