Get ready to see a whole lot more ballot measures to protect abortion rights.
Last week’s midterms were a resounding victory for abortion everywhere it was on the ballot. Voters enshrined abortion rights into the state Constitution in Vermont, California, and Michigan and defeated anti-abortion measures in the red states of Montana and Kentucky. Across the country, Democrats did better than expected, fending off the “red wave” that pundits had predicted and holding control of the Senate even as they lost control of the House. Democrats appear to have ridden to these better-than-expected results at least in part on the coattails of abortion rights—benefiting from a wave of collective outrage over the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in June. In Michigan, where abortion rights were under direct threat because of a 1931 abortion ban, Democrats won both chambers of the state legislature and the governor’s office for the first time in almost 40 years.
The polls were wrong, anti-abortion leaders are really mad, and pundits are expressing a level of shock they hadn’t experienced since Trump’s 2016 victory. It feels like the only people not surprised are abortion rights activists who saw the wave of outrage coming.
“We knew that the overwhelming majority of folks in this country wanted abortion access to be protected,” Jennifer Driver, senior director of reproductive rights at the State Innovation Exchange, a strategy hub for progressive state lawmakers, told me.
What’s more, advocates like Driver understood what some Democrats did not: that abortion is connected in the minds of voters to important “kitchen table” issues like gas prices.
“When you talk about abortion, it is a democracy issue,” Driver said. “It is an economic issue. If you’re wanting to support working-class families, repro is the issue that you run on.”
The day after the election, Driver sounded excited as she rattled off overlooked victories that could be game changers in the states. Minnesota voters elected a pro-choice trifecta of legislative and gubernatorial control for the first time ever. In Pennsylvania, voters not only elected Democratic US Senate candidate John Fetterman; they also seem poised to flip the state’s House to Democratic control for the first time since 2010. If that happens, staunch abortion rights defender state Representative Joanna McClinton is poised to become Pennsylvania’s first Black woman House speaker.
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These victories matter because the states are where abortion access has always been shaped. That’s especially true now that there is no federal right to abortion, and no path to victory for a federal bill codifying Roe into law. In states where Democrats suffered losses last week—like Ohio, where Republicans expanded control of the state legislature using gerrymandered maps that the Ohio Supreme Court had declared unconstitutional—abortion rights activists are already planning an abortion rights ballot measure. “It’s a when,” Kellie Copeland, executive director of Pro-Choice Ohio, told the Ohio Capital Journal. “It’s not an if.” In Idaho, Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Terri Pickens Manweiler told the Idaho Capital Sun she was already working on such a measure in that state the day after she lost her race last week. Nebraska advocates are working on one, too.
Ballot measures are an effective strategy for abortion rights supporters in part because they tend to showcase the cavernous gap between public support for abortion rights and the restrictive abortion policies advanced by legislatures in deep-red states like Mississippi and South Dakota—where voters defeated anti-abortion personhood amendments years before the fall of Roe. Yes, voters in four states approved amendments declaring that there is no right to abortion in the state Constitution in those years, too. But not only is the popularity of abortion rights surging, so is political participation by people who care about this issue, who are canvassing and strategizing all across the country. The share of voters who rank abortion as the issue most important to them has been consistently higher since the June Supreme Court decision than it was before the ruling, according to Brandon Crawford, researcher with the Indiana University Abortion Attitudes Project. The earliest sign of earthshaking power of that mobilization came in August in Kansas, where canvassers and phone bankers who had never participated in political campaigns helped defeat an anti-abortion amendment with 59 percent of the vote.
In last week’s election, abortion wasn’t the only winner when it came to ballot measures. Progressives used such measures to expand Medicaid in South Dakota, raise the minimum wage in Nebraska, cap the interest rate on medical debt in Arizona, and raise taxes for millionaires in Massachusetts. Voters in four of five states where the issue was on the ballot voted to remove slavery as a form of punishment from their state Constitution.
But there’s a major backlash already under way against ballot initiatives. In 2017, the progressive organization Ballot Initiative Strategy Center counted 33 bills to restrict or alter the ballot initiative process; last year that number rose to 146, and this year, it was 108. Last week, Arkansas voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have made the ballot initiative process harder; Arizona voters rejected one such restriction and approved two others. Only about half of states have a process that allows citizens to put initiatives on the ballot, and the process can take a long time. In Vermont, for example, where the amendment to enshrine reproductive autonomy in the state Constitution was started by the legislature, preparation began in 2018.
In some states, that could mean months if not years of people being forced to carry pregnancies they don’t want. Despite the clear message voters sent about their support for legal abortion, 13 states ban abortion today. In the wake of an election where democracy was said to be on the ballot, that may be the clearest indicator we have of where our democracy stands.