Abortion reports fuel debate over the Ohio ballot. Backers said it wasn’t about that

Norman Ray
Norman Ray

Global Courant

Columbus, Ohio — The fraught politics of abortion helped turn an August election question in Ohio that would make it more difficult to change the state constitution into a cauldron of misinformation and fear mongering.

State Issue 1, the only question on the ballot, calls for raising the threshold for passing future amendments to the Ohio Constitution from a simple majority to 60%. Starting next year, it would also double the number of counties where signatures must be collected, from 44 to all 88, and abolish the 10-day grace period for closing gaps in the total number of valid signatures submitted.

Republican state lawmakers and the GOP election leader who pushed the measure forward said it had nothing to do with thwarting an abortion rights issue headed for the vote this fall. However, early summer posts on social media and in churches have consistently pushed for a yes vote on the August “to protect life” amendment — and that’s just one example of the fraught messages faced by voters throughout the campaign.

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Protect Women Ohio, the campaign against the fall abortion issue, is airing pro-Issue 1 ads suggesting that abortion rights advocates at work in the state are “encouraging minors to have sex reassignment surgery and seek to overturn parental consent.” The fall abortion amendment would protect access to various forms of reproductive health care, but makes no mention of sex surgery, and the lawyers who wrote it say Ohio’s parental consent law would not be affected.

Groups opposed to No. 1 have also played on voter fears with their posts reaching the 60% threshold. A spot from the Democratic political group Progress Action Fund shows a couple groping steamily in their bedroom, then interrupted by a white-haired Republican congressman coming to take their birth control. It closes with a caption: “Keep Republicans out of your bedroom. Vote no on August 8.”

While the ad is based on fears that the U.S. Supreme Court could limit home birth control rights and make Number 1 more difficult to enshrine in Ohio’s state constitution, “the immediate, immediate problem is abortion,” said Susan Burgess, a professor of political science at Ohio University.

The divergent communication about abortion around No. 1 reflects a major problem facing Ohio Republicans: keeping an increasingly diverse voting bloc together, Burgess said.

“That’s a complicated coalition with evangelicals; 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 some part of their coalition together, but it’s not a political winner at this point if they stick to a hardline abortion argument.”

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Issue 1 supporters conversations in more focused settings reflect that duality.

Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who supports the measure, previously called number 1 a “victory for good governance” that protects Ohio residents from out-of-state special interests.

But he had a different tone at a Seneca County dinner for Lincoln Day in May, when he said the August measure is “100% designed to keep a radical, pro-abortion amendment out of our Constitution.” In an Associated Press interview, LaRose said the comment — now seen in ads across the state — was cut from a lengthy speech and taken out of context.

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Aaron Baer, ​​president of the Center for Christian Virtue, said on a radio show this month that his organization only links issue 1 to abortion with certain segments of Ohio voters.

“If we come on TV, will the ad be about abortion? Probably not,” he told host Bob Frantz on “Always Right Radio.” But, Baer said, speaking to a conservative audience, “we hit the life issue hard because it really illustrates why you should get excited and go vote.”

That twin-track approach is reflected in the first nationwide ad of the pro-Issue 1 campaign, which debuted Monday and avoids abortion. Instead, it emphasizes that amendments to the U.S. Constitution require a two-thirds majority, while Ohio’s require a simple majority of 50% plus one. Ohioans overwhelmingly voted to institute the lower threshold in 1912, in response to the rampant political corruption of the Progressive Era.

Kimberly Inez McGuire, executive director of Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity, an advocacy group, said she believes Issue 1 supporters downplay abortion in their statewide messages because they know public opinion is not on their side.

“We are seeing more and more lawmakers and abortion opponents understand that their agenda is extremely unpopular with the American people,” she said. “We see special sessions, we see anti-abortion laws passed in the middle of the night, and we see these denials from those pushing a measure designed to undermine democracy with the intent to hurt Ohio’s abortion law.”

Mark Caleb Smith, a political science professor at Cedarville University in southwestern Ohio, said abortion is emotionally charged and easy to understand — and can therefore appeal to Ohioans to donate, volunteer and vote when they otherwise wouldn’t bother calling an off-season election on something as esoteric as how to change the state’s constitution.

Calling it #1 abortion-related also reflects the truth that its passage is critical to whether Ohio’s November abortion vote passes, Smith said. Amendments protecting access to abortion in other states have generally passed, but with less than 60% of the vote. An AP VoteCast poll last year found that 59% of Ohio voters believe abortion should be legal in general.

Kayla Griffin, Ohio state director of All Voting Is Local and an opponent of No. 1, said her side wants to keep coverage of No. 1 broader than just abortion.

“While abortion is on the ballot now, minimum wage is on the ballot next,” she said. “We are bigger and our democracy is much bigger than a single issue, and we need to be able to navigate that when we go to the polls.”

Voting rights groups and the former Chief Justice of Ohio are also working on a constitutional amendment to change Ohio’s broken redistribution system.

As both supporters and opponents of Issue 1 seek voter buy-in, some of their messaging has drifted into misinformation.

“Ohio Should Vote Number 1 To Help Stop Abortions Before Birth,” headlined LifeNews.com last week.

But November’s abortion initiative wouldn’t stop state lawmakers from restricting abortions after the fetus is viable outside the womb, around 23 or 24 weeks.

Medical experts dispute the concept of “until birth” abortions, saying terminations of pregnancy at that stage are very rare — only 0.7% of Ohio’s 2021 abortions occurred after 21 weeks — and usually involve medication that causes an early birth, which is different from a surgical abortion. The procedure, also called an induction abortion, is usually done only when the fetal survival rate is low.

An email from Right to Life of Greater Cincinnati took it a step further, claiming without evidence that sex traffickers and abortion providers were “bad twins” working together to “help and assist each other.”

Democrat Teresa Fedor, a former state legislator who championed Ohio’s crackdown on sex trafficking in the legislature, said she found no prominent link between sex trafficking and forced abortion during her 20 years working on the issue.

“My perspective is that the anti-reproductive health advocates are so desperate to get #1 that they will unfortunately use a false narrative to influence their supporters,” she said in an email.

___ Swenson reported from Seattle. The Associated Press receives support from several private foundations to improve its explanatory coverage of elections and democracy. Learn more about AP’s democracy initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Abortion reports fuel debate over the Ohio ballot. Backers said it wasn’t about that

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