DAYTON, Ohio - Ohioans voted to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution, the Associated Press projected Tuesday, as ballots were counted in the most closely watched referendum on reproductive rights in the country this year.
The win for abortion rights in a state where Republicans have romped in recent elections was the latest state vote protecting abortion access since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the federal right to an abortion. It is likely to boost Democrats’ hopes that protections will be established in other states during next year’s presidential election, as well as provide fuel for their candidates.
Abortion is currently legal up to 22 weeks of pregnancy in Ohio, but proponents pushed a massive signature drive to get an amendment on November’s ballot after a ban on the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy went into effect last year, causing patients to flee to other states for treatment. The six-week law was put on hold by a judge - an injunction that is under review by the state Supreme Court.
The amendment battle garnered intense national interest as potential bellwether issue for the 2024 election, with millions of dollars from deep-pocketed billionaires and national special interest groups flowing into the state. Each side has spent about $20 million, election records show.
Exit polls conducted by The Washington Post showed that women overwhelmingly favored the measure, while men backed it by a smaller margin. The majority of Black and Latino voters supported the measure, although White voters - the majority of the electorate - were more evenly divided. Most Democrats and independents supported the measure, while most Republicans were opposed.
Ohio is the seventh state to protect abortion access since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade’s federal abortion standard in June 2022. Voters in red states such as Kansas and Kentucky have been among those siding with abortion access. Like those states, Ohio went for Donald Trump in 2020.
“Our message was that private medical decisions should be left for people to make with their families and politicians should not be a part of those decisions,” said Lauren Beene, executive director of Ohio Physicians for Reproductive Rights and a leader of Protect Choice Ohio, the grass-roots organization that spearheaded the drive to collect signatures to get the issue on the fall ballot.
The Ohio amendment, known on the ballot as Issue 1, makes it a constitutional right to “make and carry out one’s own reproductive decisions,” including on abortion, contraception, fertility treatment and miscarriage care. It allows the state to restrict abortion after fetal viability, except when “necessary to protect the pregnant patient’s life or health.”
Ohio’s Republican secretary of state, Frank LaRose, said he expected turnout to be robust for a nonpresidential election, as voters decided on the abortion amendment and a second referendum governing recreational use of marijuana. More than 860,000 people in Ohio voted early, out of about 8 million registered voters, his office said.
Opponents of Ohio’s measure had argued that the language in the amendment was too vague and “too extreme” for the state. They alleged that the amendment could hinder parents’ rights to oversee their children’s lives and that the definition of “health” could be misused by doctors to apply to nonmedical circumstances. Legal experts have rejected both of those claims.
Gov. Mike DeWine (R) was an outspoken opponent of the measure, appearing in a recent ad with his wife, Fran, urging a “no” vote and warning that the proposal was “not right for Ohio.”
Polls before the vote showed that the majority of Ohioans support some abortion access. A July poll from USA Today and Suffolk University found that 58 percent of Ohioans backed the proposed amendment and 32 percent opposed it.
On Tuesday, college students, retirees and workers from a sprawling military community at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base turned out to vote at a polling station on the Wright State University campus outside Dayton. The complexity of the issue was evident there, with voters for and against not necessarily breaking down along party lines.
Ethel Burns, 70, who is Black and a retired Air Force sergeant, said she voted for the amendment.
“The government does not need to be in my body,” Burns said, noting that Prohibition didn’t stop drinking and that she feels a ban on abortions wouldn’t stop abortions.
“This is an issue that is between a woman and her God,” Burns said.
Looking ahead to 2024, however, Burns said she was rethinking her support for President Biden after switching her allegiance to Biden and the Democrats in 2020 following her vote for Trump in 2016. She cited the Biden administration’s handling of the war in Gaza, which she believes is alienating Muslims and voters of color.
“I am disillusioned,” Burns said. “I grew up Democrat, but when I started serving in the military, Republicans were pro-military. Now that I’m a senior citizen, I just want somebody who will work for the good of the people.”
In recent weeks, DeWine had tried to appeal to centrist voters by suggesting that the Ohio legislature should revisit the wording of the state’s six-week ban if the abortion amendment failed, adding exceptions in cases of rape or incest.
But there was no guarantee Ohio’s Republican supermajority in the state legislature would agree with him, critics said.
Robert Benge, 50, a construction worker in Beavercreek, near Dayton, said Tuesday that he supported DeWine’s plan to add these exceptions to the six-week ban if Issue 1 failed.
He said he was voting against the amendment, citing a falsehood about its impact on transgender youths that has been spread by the opposition and debunked by the state’s conservative attorney general, Dave Yost.
“Kids should not be allowed to have gender-reassignment surgery without their parents’ permission,” said Benge, a Republican.
In the spring, as abortion rights supporters gathered steam in their effort to collect signatures to put abortion protection on the fall ballot, the Republican supermajority in the state legislature voted to hold an August special election that would have made it harder to pass constitutional amendments, raising the threshold of passage from a simple majority to 60 percent.
The issue - aimed squarely at abortion supporters - was defeated by a decisive margin, with voters even in counties that supported Trump rejecting the proposal.
The GOP’s attempt at gamesmanship in August was noted by Democratic voters Tuesday.
“We need to get these Republican fools under control,” said Tim Powell, 71, a retired resident of Beavercreek. Powell said he voted for the abortion amendment because he wants to keep abortion legal and accessible in Ohio.
At the Wright State University polling location Tuesday, voters ranged from those who said their Christian beliefs prevented them from supporting the procedure to others who said their support of a woman’s right to make her own medical decisions was unwavering.
Ron Sager, 79, a retired Air Force veteran, and his wife, Patricia Sager, 76, cast their votes against the amendment.
“We do not believe in abortion. We are Christians,” Ron Sager said. Patricia Sager said that abortion is a very complicated topic but that “we never agree with killing a baby.”
Kaylee Spencer, 21, of Fairborn, who works at a nearby movie theater, said she voted for the amendment.
“I would like to keep all of my rights and make sure everyone else has them too,” Spencer said. She said that she was less passionate about Issue 2, which would legalize recreational use of marijuana in Ohio, but that she also voted yes on that.