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Connect the Dots

Protecting Abortion Rights Requires Protecting Democracy as Well

In Ohio—and elsewhere—the right tries to rig the game to pass unpopular measures like abortion restrictions. We must fight on both fronts.

Michelle Gustafson/Bloomberg/Getty Images

On August 8, Ohio will consider a ballot initiative called “Issue 1” that would increase the threshold to approve public referenda. Although a ballot question currently requires no more than a simple majority to become law—50 percent plus one—the new proposal would raise that number to 60 percent.

This action is no mundane bit of governance; instead it is an active effort to prevent Ohio voters from enshrining abortion rights into law.

Here’s the situation. Abortion-rights advocates previously placed a measure on Ohio’s November ballot that would amend the state’s constitution to protect the right to abortion. Afraid the measure would pass, abortion opponents quickly suggested a higher threshold for public ballot measures and rushed the proposal onto an earlier ballot—in the dead of summer. While Ohio’s Republican state lawmakers and the GOP elections chief deny that the August 8 ballot measure was intended to hinder the November ballot question, the “yes” campaign has repeatedly called on voters “to protect life,” and Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose told a group of Republican voters that the ballot question was “100 percent about keeping a radical, pro-abortion amendment out of our constitution.”

Anti-democratic measures like Ohio’s Issue 1 are emblematic of how the fight for abortion rights is playing out in a post-Roe America. With almost 70 percent of Americans supporting abortion rights, opponents are increasingly offering no substantive response. Instead, they’re deploying a quiet, nationwide strategy of altering the playing field in ways that concentrate power in the hands of conservative extremists—limiting abortion by undermining democracy itself. Anti-abortion activists realize they can’t win a fair fight, so they’re changing the rules of the game.

This approach is not new. Attacking democratic initiatives and voting rights has long been at the forefront of an anti-abortion strategy. In Georgia and Missouri, gerrymandering concentrated power in the hands of conservatives, with harsher abortion laws following soon after. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill significantly restricting voting rights the same week that a law essentially banning abortions at six weeks took effect, making his legislative agenda harder to reverse. Across the country, anti-abortion laws and anti-democracy efforts have gone hand in hand, allowing an extremist minority to impose its will on a majority of Americans.

We need to push back on restrictive anti-abortion laws—but in order to win, we must understand that the fight for abortion rights is being waged through erosion and neutralization of our democratic processes. The rules that provide the scaffolding for abortion—and many other fundamental rights—must be vigorously defended. To protect abortion, we must protect democracy itself.

That means we need to advocate for expanded access to ballot measures. Popular democracy has been successful in protecting and expanding reproductive rights, as well as many other fundamental freedoms. In Kentucky and Michigan, ballot measures have safeguarded abortion. Even in Kansas, a ballot measure on abortion rights prevailed last year despite an overwhelmingly conservative legislature. Strengthening access to this tool will serve as a check on gerrymandered legislatures that seek to rule without meaningful consent from the people they are sworn to serve.

This work also requires that we wage a battle against partisan gerrymandering orchestrated by anti-choice Republicans. Gerrymandered maps in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Ohio—maps drawn in violation of the Voting Rights Act and deemed unconstitutional by lower courts—have elevated anti-choice politicians and protected them from accountability. From members of Congress to state legislative officials, politicians installed through gerrymandered maps have favored voter suppression bills to further protect their positions. Fighting back against gerrymandering is critical to unwinding the extremist chokehold on state legislatures and on Congress.

Finally, we must also turn attention to America’s courts. We’ve already seen jurists in states like Kansas and Iowa issue rulings protecting abortion rights, and we must continue to seek relief under state courts. At the same time, we must scrutinize an increasingly unaccountable Supreme Court. The court was meant to serve as a check on power, not wield absolute authority—yet its current majority’s increasingly consistent and growing detachment from popular will suggests it is no longer the check the Founders intended. Instead, it is veering dangerously off course—imposing fringe minority opinions and turning back the clock on critical progress. We need to consider reforms, from ethical codes to term limits, which would restore faith and establish credibility to the court.

When the will of an extremist minority tramples the rights of the majority, it is vital that we protect not only our individual rights but our system of democracy. To stay in the game, we have to uphold the rules. As Ohio considers Issue 1 Tuesday, it’s clear that democracy is on the ballot—and in order to protect it, we have to take action together.