After a string of defeats at the ballot in red and purple states in the 2022 election, a growing number of GOP-controlled state legislatures and anti-abortion groups are pushing back.
They are working to restrict or even ban citizen-led ballot initiatives, which have been used by progressive groups to bypass conservative lawmakers.
Some of the proposals set new requirements for signature gathering, making it more difficult to put a question on the ballot. Others would raise the passage threshold to 60 percent or higher, rather than a simple majority.
The pushback has been building for several years, as voters tried to circumvent GOP opposition to policies like Medicaid expansion, marijuana legalization, family leave and mandatory minimum wage.
“We started to notice this in 2017. After a wave of progressive ballot measures were passed, we started to see an uptick. And then it really started to escalate in 2020 and 2021,” said Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, an organization that supports progressive ballot measures.
Then last June, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and local activists sought to protect abortion in their states.
That “threw fuel on the fire when it comes to efforts to restrict ballot measures,” Hannah Ledford, deputy executive director and campaigns director of the ballot measure group Fairness Project, said in an email.
Every state that put abortion on the ballot in 2022 voted in favor of protecting access to the procedure in some way, including Republican-leaning Kentucky and Kansas.
“Last year was a wake up call for us as the pro-life movement for how much work we have to do,” said Kelsey Pritchard, the state public affairs director for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America (SBA).
Pritchard noted abortion rights groups spent tens of millions of dollars across the country last year, and said SBA and the anti-abortion movement needs to be much more proactive in its messaging leading up to 2024.
The latest fight is happening in Ohio, where a coalition of abortion rights groups have been gathering signatures to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would allow legal abortion up until the point of fetal viability, at about 24 weeks.
Ohio passed a six week abortion ban shortly after Roe was overturned, but it is currently on hold by a court. Abortion is still legal for up to 22 weeks.
The state ballot board certified the amendment in March, allowing the groups to move ahead with gathering the more than 400,000 validated signatures needed to put the question to voters.
Marcela Azevedo, president of Ohio Physicians for Reproductive Rights, said the groups are on target to meet the July deadline for submitting the signatures, and predicted the measure would pass in November.
But GOP lawmakers are simultaneously trying to change the state’s rules on ballot measures that have been in place for more than 100 years.
Lawmakers last week voted to create a special election in August, in order to put their own constitutional amendment on the ballot. It would need support from only 50 percent of voters, but if passed, it would raise the threshold of all future measures to a 60 percent supermajority.
“This August election, it’s obviously extremely undemocratic,” Azevedo said. “These extremist politicians … they’re trying to cheat the system.”
Ballot measures are expensive and challenging undertakings, and efforts to change the signature requirements or increase the threshold for passage would make them even more so.
“What we’re seeing across the country is a power grab of who gets to say and get to participate in our democracy. And it really is an undermining of the will of people,” Melody Fields Figueredo said.
The disconnect between politicians and the voters is only growing as legislative districts become more gerrymandered and partisanship increases.
Since 2017, voters in seven states have passed Medicaid expansion through ballot measures when their state government refused to. Voters in a dozen states have passed minimum wage increases since 2013.
Mike Gonidakis, the longtime president of the anti-abortion group Ohio Right to Life, said he helped push the amendment for the 60 percent threshold over the finish line in the state legislature.
Gonidakis said abortion is a “policy decision” that should be made by elected representatives, not enshrined in the constitution.
“They want to put weed in our constitution next, you know, mandatory minimum wage, abortion. Those are policy decisions that we have elections every two, four years, to elect men and women to the legislature to make those decisions. Our Constitution needs to be protected,” Gonidakis said.
“We will have an election and you can decide if it should be 50 or 60 percent. And that’s democracy at its finest,” Gonidakis said.
Aside from Ohio, legislatures in North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho, Arizona, Missouri, Florida, and Arkansas all discussed efforts to block or limit citizen-sponsored ballot initiatives.
Arkansas voters previously rejected a 2022 effort to make it harder to get a constitutional amendment ballot question, but then in March the legislature passed similar requirements as a bill, which Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) signed into law.
A Missouri bill would have required a 57 percent majority to approve constitutional amendments, but senators couldn’t break a filibuster to pass it this session.
Getting a ballot measure enacted is already difficult in Florida, where a 60 percent vote is required to approve a change to a constitutional amendment. Lawmakers this session considered increasing it to 67 percent.
Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) also recently signed a six-week abortion ban.
Still, a coalition of abortion rights groups including local chapters of Planned Parenthood and the ACLU this month launched a citizen-led ballot initiative campaign to try to put abortion protections on the ballot in Florida.