6 min read

Why Ohio’s referendum on referenda matters

A seemingly anodyne ballot measure in Ohio could have major implications for the fight over abortion.
Why Ohio’s referendum on referenda matters
Photo by the Ohio Republican Party

Good morning! It’s Tuesday, August 8, 2023. The 2024 elections are 455 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Ohio voters will head to the polls today to cast their ballots on “Issue 1,” a state referendum that has attracted national dollars and attention.

At first glance, the proposal can seem fairly anodyne. If it is adopted, future state ballot measures will need 60% support to pass, instead of 50%+1, the current threshold. In addition, to get on the ballot in the first place, supporters of such measures will need to receive signatures from all 88 Ohio counties, instead of only 44.

Huge amounts of money have flowed to both sides of the debate: according to the Associated Press, the leading group supporting Issue 1 has raised at least $4.8 million — while an organization set up to rally opposition has raised $14.8 million. Almost all of the donations on both sides have been from out-of-state.

Voters have also been rushing to the polls: as of Friday, more than 578,000 voters had cast early ballots, per the Columbus Dispatch. For comparison, in the state’s last August elections, fewer than 143,000 Ohioans voted early. Even the state’s May 2022 primary elections, which included competitive gubernatorial and Senate contests, attracted only 288,700 early voters.

Why all the fuss about a referendum on referenda? Because Ohio is set to vote on another controversial ballot measure in November, one that would amend the state Constitution to protect an Ohioan’s right to abortion until the point of fetal viability.

After the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) signed a six-week abortion ban last year, although the law has been held up in the courts. If the November amendment passes, that law would be thrown out and Roe v. Wade-era abortion protections would become the norm in red-leaning Ohio.

But if Issue 1 passes first, the November amendment will be all that much harder to get through the finish line. A Scripps News/YouGov poll in June and a USA Today/Suffolk University poll in July both found that 58% of Ohio voters support the abortion amendment — a comfortable majority, but under the 60% threshold it would need to clear if Issue 1 is approved.

Ballot initiatives are a legacy of the Progressive era, along with other political institutions like recall elections that reformers instituted across the country to increase pathways for direct democracy.

Indeed, the Ohio ballot measure rules which could be changed today were originally imposed in the state’s Constitution in 1912, at the height of that time period.

Today’s vote is just the latest Republican-led effort to tweak referendum rules across the country, after years of Democratic-supported ballot initiatives on abortion, marijuana, Medicaid expansion, and other issues gaining support in red and blue states alike.

Last year, a similar measure to require 60% support for ballot initiatives was defeated in Arkansas, while one narrowly passed in Arizona (although it only applied to ballot measures that raise taxes). So far this year, 360 bills to change ballot measure rules have been proposed in 45 state legislatures, per Ballotpedia.

In the same time span, pro-choice advocates have used ballot measures to expand abortion access in California, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, and Vermont. Since Dobbs, no pro-choice referendum that has made it onto the ballot has ever been defeated across the country.

Democrats are pushing for more states to hold abortion referenda in 2024, in an effort to not only increase abortion access, but also shore up their voter turnout, mimicking the 2004 Republican strategy of placing same-sex marriage bans on the ballot in key states. Such looming contests only raise the stakes for efforts to tweak ballot access rules like Issue 1.

The latest Trump news.

Lawyers for former President Donald Trump and Special Counsel Jack Smith continued trading legal filings on Monday. Trump’s attorneys pushed back against Smith’s request for tight restrictions on Trump’s ability to publicly share evidence in the January 6th case, arguing the move would violate Trump’s First Amendment rights.

Smith’s office responded by charging that Trump’s filing showed his team would prefer to “try this case in the media rather than in the courtroom.”

Meanwhile, Smith’s investigations into Trumpworld are continuing, even after the indictments. In the January 6th case, Trump ally Bernard Kerik met with investigators on Monday, while prosecutors have reportedly issued new subpoenas on the fake electors. In the documents case, a Monday order from Judge Aileen Cannon seemed to suggest that Smith is still using a D.C.-based grand jury to investigate the crimes he charged in Florida.

A split has emerged between Trump and his January 6th lawyer, John Lauro, Politico notes. While Trump has repeatedly called for the Obama-appointed judge in that case to recuse herself, Lauro said in an interview that he was not prepared to go that far.

Trump’s calls for recusal were made on Truth Social, where his posting has been increasingly erratic in recent days, from a message blasting the U.S. women’s soccer team to another declaring that Nancy Pelosi is “a sick & demented psycho who will someday live in HELL!” Smith’s two most recent filings have cited Trump’s missives, including his Monday filing which quoted Trump’s post criticizing potential witness Mike Pence.

More 2024 headlines.

  • Florida Gov. Ron Desantis made his most direct statement yet about Trump’s 2020 defeat in an NBC News interview on Monday. “Of course he lost,” DeSantis said, after years of skirting around the question. DeSantis also stepped up his criticisms of Trump on Covid, immigration, and other issues.
  • Former Vice President Mike Pence has finally qualified for the first Republican debate, his campaign announced last night. In a symbol of Pence’s struggling primary bid, lesser-known contenders like Vivek Ramaswamy, Doug Burgum, and Perry Johnson all reached the qualifying donor threshold for the debate before the ex-VP.
  • No Labels has qualified for the general election ballot in a key battleground state, Nevada. The group has also obtained ballot access in five other states — Arizona, Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Utah — as it mulls a third-party presidential bid.

Around the world

The day ahead.

At the White House: President Biden will kick off a three-state Western swing to continue promoting his economic agenda, despite fresh polling evidence that his “Bidenomics” push has failed to make Americans any less skeptical about the state of the economy.

Biden will speak at the Historic Red Butte Airfield in Arizona about the Inflation Reduction Act, the Democratic climate and health care package that 71% of Americans said they have heard “little” or “nothing” about in a new Washington Post/University of Maryland poll.

The president will then visit the Grand Canyon, where he will announce a new national monument protecting nearly 1 million acres of nearby land that is sacred to Native Americans. The move will effectively ban any new uranium mining leases in the area around the Grand Canyon.

Finally, Biden will travel to the next stop on his Western tour, New Mexico, where he will close the night with a campaign fundraiser in Albuquerque.

Before I go...

It’s been a little while since I’ve closed with something non-political. I’m sorry about that. The news, as you can imagine, has gotten in the way — but perhaps those are the times when it’s most important to end a newsletter like this with something different.

Usually, when I do keep up with this section, I like to leave you with a lighter piece of news. This morning’s story isn’t that, but I still highly recommend you read it.

Jennifer Senior of The Atlantic is, for my money, possibly the most talented writer in American journalism today. Her writing is, without fail, beautiful, profound, and often heart-rending. I have shared pieces of hers in this space before, including her Pulitzer-winning story about 9/11 victim Bobby McIlvaine.

Her newest piece, “The Ones We Sent Away,” is about her aunt, Adele, who was institutionalized as a toddler in the 1950s and rarely spoken of again. Senior achingly tells Adele’s story, while also connecting it to a broader, societal phenomenon:

It is remarkable how many Americans have relations who were, at some point during the past century, sequestered from public view. They were warehoused, disappeared, roughly shorn from the family tree. “Delineated” is how the Georgetown disability-studies scholar Jennifer Natalya Fink puts it, meaning denied their proper place in their ancestral lineage. With time, we would learn the terrible toll that institutionalization took on those individuals. But they weren’t the only ones who paid a price, Fink argues. So did their parents, their siblings, future generations.

The full piece is highly worth taking some time out of your day to read. You can find it here.

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— Gabe