Ohio went to the polls on Tuesday to vote on whether to make it harder to amend the state constitution by ballot, just months before a significant abortion measure goes before voters. But the measure failed.
The headlines around the referendum, called “Issue 1,” framed it as another hot-button issue splitting Americans into the same factions—Democrats versus Republicans, abortion opponents versus abortion rights advocates.
For some Christians, Issue 1 wasn’t so black and white. Many supported it, believing the higher threshold would hurt the chances of the upcoming abortion amendment. Some opposed it, and others struggled to reconcile their views against abortion with their concerns over how it would affect other rights in the state.
Issue 1 would have raised the passing threshold for constitutional amendments to a 60 percent supermajority, up from the current 50 percent plus one vote needed to do so. It also would have required signatures from all 88 counties in the state, instead of the current 44 needed, to initiate a ballot petition.
The subtext of the referendum, however, was abortion. In November, voters in Ohio will be considering a constitutional amendment that aims to enshrine the right to abortion in the state—a measure that already has been adopted by several states and is supported by 58 percent of Ohio voters, according to a July poll by Suffolk University and USA Today. Opponents of Issue 1 saw it as an effort to hamstring that amendment before it came to a vote, as well as a threat to voting rights in the state.
But on Tuesday this week, about three million voters in Ohio participated in the referendum, and a majority (57%) said “no” to Issue 1, setting up a showdown in November over abortion rights in the state.
Aaron Baer, president of the Center for Christian Virtue, an Ohio-based advocacy organization, supported Issue 1. He pinned responsibility on outside groups—who “want to jam their political agenda into our state constitution”—for influencing the referendum’s result. Though, according to Ballotpedia, more than 80 percent of contributions to campaigns both for and against Issue 1 came from out-of-state donors, and pro-life groups spent millions of dollars in ad campaigns.
Baer sees Ohio as the vanguard for other states where similar measures on abortion are being considered. On Tuesday, for example, abortion rights advocates filed a ballot measure in Arizona to make it a constitutional right.
“If they can win here, it’s going to be tough to beat them in these other places, because Ohio is generally a pretty pro-life state and it’s a pretty conservative state,” he said.
He also worries the constitutional amendment on abortion will “obliterate parental rights” in Ohio. Critics argue the amendment’s language does not specify age, making abortion available to underage teenagers without parental consent. They also worry that the vague language could make abortion available through a full-term pregnancy.
Others, like Mel Oliver and his wife, who attend a Baptist church in Columbus, tried to separate Issue 1 from the conversation on abortion.
“We do consider ourselves pro-life, and we do not intend to vote in approval of the amendment vote in November. However, what are the ongoing longer-term ramifications of changing the way we ratify our constitution in the state of Ohio?” he said.
Oliver says he voted in a split-second decision in favor of Issue 1 because it would have brought Ohio’s constitutional rules in line with federal guidelines for the US Constitution, as well as with rules from other states. But Ohio is not alone: According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, at least 17 states have citizen-initiated amendments, with several requiring a simple majority to pass.
Two former Republican governors of Ohio, Bob Taft and John Kasich, opposed Issue 1 on grounds that it would change voting rights in the state, which have remained the same for over a century. The American Policy Roundtable, an Ohio-based non-profit “anchored in Judeo-Christian principles,” also opposed Issue 1 while at the same time declaring its opposition to the constitutional amendment on abortion.
Rob Walgate, the vice president of the APC, says there were other Christians who opposed Issue 1.
“Many didn’t come out and [they didn’t] scream out loud from the rooftops. They were voting against the measure—they just did it quietly, because they felt like they were being unfairly lectured about their position when it comes to the life issue,” he said.
According to Walgate, there were plenty of reasons to oppose Issue 1. He noted that since Ohio ratified ballot-based constitutional amendments in 1912, measures have come from citizens and been added to the constitution only 19 out of 71 times. Issue 1 also would have empowered elected officials while stripping citizens from a measure meant to help keep them in check. And the fact that it was “done last-minute in August—one of the last possible hours to get on the ballots—quite frankly infuriated a lot of folks.”
Some Christians worried that Issue 1 could have hurt efforts to pass future amendments on pro-life issues such as capital punishment, gun control, and minimum wage.
Walgate argued that instead of pushing Issue 1, Republicans should have been focused on the constitutional amendment on abortion, which he says has “some of the most heinous language that has been seen on the issue of abortion.”
Mark Caleb Smith, a political scientist at Cedarville University, told Baptist Press that the referendum’s result may also indicate that Republicans are not as unified on abortion as it is often assumed.
“The Republican Party is more fractured on the issue of abortion than most people would think,” Smith said.
He added, “I do think you have some Republicans [who] voted against Issue 1 because of its potential impact on abortion in November.”
Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and returned the issue of abortion to the states, Republicans have failed to form a cohesive policy on abortion. In several states, Republican-led governments have sought stringent anti-abortion measures that some blame for backlash in elections that the party has lost or performed poorly in.
Last year in Ohio, Republican lawmakers ushered a “heartbeat bill”—originally passed in 2019—that banned abortions after six weeks. The measure is believed to have cut abortions by more than half in the state, before a judge from Hamilton County put the bill on hold.
This week, the state’s Supreme Court set a hearing date for September 27 for oral arguments on the case, less than two months from when Ohioans will decide whether to make abortion a constitutional right.