Ohio Voters Reject GOP Effort To Limit Direct Democracy : The NPR Politics Podcast Ohio voters have decisively rejected a proposal that, if passed, would have made it much harder for future ballot measures to add amendments to the state constitution. The Republican-led effort was scheduled to come before a November ballot measure that would expand abortion access in the state.

This episode: voting correspondent Miles Parks, political correspondent Kelsey Snell, and political correspondent Susan Davis.

The podcast is produced by Elena Moore and Casey Morell. Our editor is Eric McDaniel. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi.

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Ohio Voters Reject GOP Effort To Limit Direct Democracy

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KELSEY: Hi, this is Kelsey (ph) in Dayton, Ohio. I took my 18-year-old daughter to vote for the very first time in Ohio's August special election. This podcast was recorded at...

MILES PARKS, HOST:

12:46 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, August 9, 2023.

KELSEY: Things may have changed by the time you hear it, but we'll still be celebrating our chance to make our voices heard in Ohio. OK, here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: A timely Kelsey timestamp.

PARKS: Yes, very timely.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: I still remember exactly what I voted on the first time I voted, and I remember the day I registered.

PARKS: I also think it's good training to go to a special election.

SNELL: Yeah.

PARKS: You know, I feel like if you're voting in those...

DAVIS: Off-year term.

SNELL: You're like (inaudible).

PARKS: You're, like, really nailing the democratic process, right?

SNELL: Real participation.

PARKS: Yeah. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting.

SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover politics.

DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I also cover politics.

PARKS: So we talked last week about this Republican-led effort in Ohio to make ballot initiatives harder to pass there. It was essentially a proxy battle on abortion because an amendment is set to be on the ballot in November that would enshrine abortion rights in the Constitution. And this week's proposal would have made it a lot harder to pass that amendment. So last night in this special election, this Republican-led effort failed pretty spectacularly. And, Sue, Kelsey, this feels like just another piece of evidence that says abortion is a really potent motivator for voters.

SNELL: Yeah, it absolutely is another piece of evidence in this kind of building arsenal the Democrats are looking at of ways to get voters to show up and vote for major issues. And they're kind of hoping that this is something they can replicate in the 2024 election. I think what's also interesting here is that it also speaks to a trend in conservative and conservative-leaning states of still voting to affirm abortion rights. And that is something that Democrats are watching very closely.

DAVIS: You know, I think there's a conflict here because in so many ways, since the Dobb decisions, Republicans had a huge policy victory, and they continue to have these policy victories, particularly in Republican-led states, in restricting abortion access. But we are seeing time and time again when the issue of abortion access is put directly to voters - and sometimes in red states like Kansas and now Ohio - voters are supporting and affirming support for abortion rights, or at least the right to vote on abortion rights, as we saw in Ohio last night. And that's a tricky political place to be for a political party. You know, you're winning policy fights, but if you're against the will of the people in these policy fights, it's unsure how that's going to play out long term. And it's something we saw in 2022, and it's something we're going to be watching really closely going into 2024.

SNELL: You know, I talked to Sarah Walker, who is one of the people leading a progressive group called the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, and she actually said this is when - these moments, like you're describing, are when ballot initiatives in particular are most effective. She talked about them being used historically more heavily in moments and times when the public does not feel like the representative government is actually representing them and when they feel like they need an opportunity to directly represent themselves.

PARKS: Do we have any sense of what the people who were in favor of this amendment and generally are kind of fighting against abortion access - what are they saying at this point?

DAVIS: On the state level, a lot of the Ohio Republican lawmakers who helped set up this election - I think including the Senate president as recently as yesterday said, hey, they could try again. They blamed outside special interest money. It's worth noting that a lot of the money that flooded into Ohio regarding this referendum came from outside the state. You know, this isn't really a local issue anymore.

SNELL: On both sides.

DAVIS: Yes, absolutely. This is a national issue from both abortion-rights supporters and opponents. So they said that was a dynamic. And then I also think abortion grassroots activists, I think, have some sense of anger within the party. The Susan B. Anthony List, which is one of the most prominent advocacy groups against abortion rights, put out a pretty fire statement last night, putting the blame on elected Republican leaders. They didn't name names but said that people in the party didn't work hard enough or put enough energy behind this cause. They also namecheck the business lobby, often traditionally an ally of the Republican Party, that they didn't spend enough money to influence voters on this race. So there is some sort of internal recriminations among the Republican Party and their traditional allies about how this went south, because remember, this was a process designed, orchestrated and put into law entirely by Republicans, and they failed.

PARKS: I always have to bring my kind of voting reporter insights here, but, like, another instance where people are kind of irritated when it feels like the government is kind of changing the rules of the game, changing how we vote, right? We saw this in midterms with all of the election denial candidates who were saying radical things about how they wanted to change voting lost kind of across the board in swing states. This amendment felt like a clear instance where they were kind of changing the rules, and voters didn't seem to like it.

DAVIS: Yeah, I think that's an absolutely critical part to understanding and analyzing what happened last night. It is absolutely about abortion. Abortion was the central talking point around this initiative and the question behind it. But also the way the process was done, I think, just sort of stunk to voters. The way that the Ohio state constitution can be changed has been enshrined in law for a hundred years. You know, I think people - when you start shaking up institutions and constitutions and understanding the motives of why, I think voters get a little alarmed and it takes a lot to calm them down. And I don't think that the Republican side was able to soothe those concerns. And I think there were issue groups beyond abortion that were involved in this fight...

SNELL: Yeah, there absolutely were. Yeah.

DAVIS: ...On issues like guns or parental rights or marijuana legalization, saying, like, look, if they can do this for this issue, it can - it could affect all these other issues. Like, it is about abortion, but it's about all these other issues. So there was also lobbying and influence from other, you know, culture war issues, looking at if you change the rules of the game, how does it affect the laws? And I think when you're changing the rules of the game, especially when it's seen as being driven by only one party, it can not always have the result that the advocates are seeking.

PARKS: Kelsey, I want to stay in Ohio here before we talk kind of nationally, 'cause obviously abortion is going to be such a big role in 2024. But what do you think this special election, the results here, say about the possibility that this amendment could pass in November? I mean, is this - does this make this kind of a sure thing?

SNELL: It doesn't make it a sure thing, but it does tell us that outside groups, if they're willing to spend money on this kind of preliminary step, this step to defend the existing constitution, they're going to spend money on the eventual ballot initiative that would enshrine abortion rights and rights to contraception and other elements of women's health. It means that people are going to show up and try to get voters to the polls, which is often a really big, important part of actually getting a ballot initiative passed is getting people engaged. So we know that these groups are willing to spend money and make sure people show up at a time when they wouldn't necessarily be showing up.

DAVIS: I would also say that a point of caution is that - let's not draw overly grand conclusions from one special election.

PARKS: Always. Always.

DAVIS: And - it's always worth repeating whenever we have these conversations after very interesting special elections. I am cautious to think that there's a one-to-one correlation with the way that people voted today and the way they will vote in November. Voters have very complex views about abortion, and they could have just been aggravated by the process, but might have some reservations about the amendment, right?

PARKS: Yeah.

DAVIS: So, like, you could have voted no today...

PARKS: That's true.

DAVIS: ...And might not vote the same way in November, especially because, as Kelsey said, this amendment is written rather broadly. And this is still - Ohio is still a red state. I think that it still leans conservative. And the opponents of this will advocate that it is way too overly broad, that it doesn't put enough restrictions. There's still a lot of space to debate the merit of abortion access, when those lines should be drawn. So obviously, Democrats had a very good day today. But I think considering the political leanings of that state and the dynamics of it, the outcome of November is not certain. I will say this. If Democrats win again in November, I do think that that might change the calculus of the way people could be looking at states like Ohio next year.

PARKS: All right. Let's take a quick break. And when we're back, let's talk about this on a national level.

And we're back. And, Kelsey, you've been reporting a lot on ballot amendments and kind of the effect that they have on the electorate. I saw this week that there are groups in Arizona trying to get an abortion amendment on the ballot there for next year. What other states should we be watching next year when it comes to these sorts of amendments?

SNELL: Yeah, the question of Arizona and their decision seems like it's coming to a head at this moment. They've been talking about it for some time. There are abortion-rights groups that have been trying to figure out exactly the right way to phrase and structure such an amendment. We're also looking at Florida and Pennsylvania, two very swingy - potentially swingy states where Democrats are eyeing these kinds of ballot initiatives on abortion. And they are specifically looking at doing them in 2024.

PARKS: And, I mean, this, as a political strategy, feels novel to me. But I think some of your reporting seems to have shown this is not kind of a new tactic.

SNELL: No, this has been around since about the 1800s. And it was originated in some states that we kind of consider to be conservative at this point. You know, it is used by both parties. And the example people kept pointing me back to was 2004, when Republicans used ballot initiatives to drive conservative votes on gay marriage. You know, at the time, amendments to define marriages between only a man and a woman passed in 11 states. And I think it's also important to point out that in some of those states - actually, in many of those states, the margins were above 60%. So it was a hugely motivating and activating tool for Republicans in 2004, and it did help them. It helped move some states.

PARKS: It is worth noting, Sue, though, that these sorts of ballot initiatives are really resource-intensive, right?

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, they're hugely expensive, which is oftentimes - sometimes they're very niche, right? Like, sometimes states just have very local issues that local voters care about. But on issues like gay marriage or abortion, particularly cultural issues, they're very expensive. But also, frankly, cultural issues like this tend to have a lot of money. I have no doubt that any state that wants to get an abortion referendum on the ballot in any election year is not going to be hurting to find donors and funders to help support that cause.

They're not only expensive, they're also, oftentimes, very legally complicated. Different states have different barriers for entry for how you can get language onto a ballot. You really need to know state laws, how things can be worded, how they're presented to voters, what the deadlines are, how you message it. It's not an easy thing to do. It is intended to be complicated. But I also think if you think about it another way, it is a complicated, nuanced process that does allow direct democracy to happen in its purest form, right?

PARKS: Yeah.

DAVIS: Like, the voters have spoken. And so I think when a ballot initiative succeeds or fails, it does have a way of more effectively silencing a debate in a state because it isn't like, oh, it's those politicians in the statehouse playing games again, right? Like, literally, the people have spoken. So they can be a very effective political tool at moving policy in a direction, but it is not easily done or cheaply done.

SNELL: And if you think about it from the perspective of Democrats trying to run candidates in those states that may have ballot initiatives, you're not going to be complaining about a whole lot of extra money being spent on Get Out the Vote and voter education initiatives that you may not have to do as a result of this ballot initiative.

DAVIS: Ballot initiatives can also tap into voters that might not otherwise care about politics. I don't necessarily know yet if abortion is one of that, but I think about things like marijuana legalization and legislation that has happened in a lot of states over the last 10 to 20 years. They tended to tap into younger voters, people who had different views on that issue, people who might vote cross-party on things of those accord. So...

SNELL: Yeah. There's no guarantee that an abortion voter is going to be also a person who casts a vote for Democrats.

DAVIS: Sure. And so, like, ballot initiatives kind of can bring new voters into the fold 'cause they might care more about the issue than they do about politicians. And that adds, like, a very interesting dynamic, especially when we're talking about states like Arizona, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, you know, who have much more at stake in the next election.

PARKS: I really liked what Frank Luntz told you, Kelsey, where - 'cause it's not only about, like, people caring about abortion, also - the idea of ballot initiatives kind of cut through a lot of, like, the cynicism voters feel about democracy issues right now where, like, this - like, if you're a voter who is kind of a why-bother person where you're just feeling like there is no point, these people do not represent me, a ballot initiative actually could speak to a voter like that because they feel like they actually can make a difference when they're - with their vote as opposed to feeling like they're just kind of playing into a system that doesn't represent them.

SNELL: Yeah. Frank Luntz is a Republican strategist, and he said that this is a smart play by Democrats. He said there's really not a huge downside for them. If anything, it's a complicating thing, as Sue mentioned, but it's not - it doesn't have negative effects for them to be putting abortion on the ballot.

PARKS: Sue, can you talk a little bit - I want to go back to Ohio before we close out here. There is a big Senate race...

DAVIS: Yeah.

PARKS: ...Happening there next year. How does yesterday's results - how does this all play into what you're watching?

DAVIS: Sherrod Brown is the Democratic incumbent there. One of the things that's interesting is one of the candidates in the Republican primary who wants to take him on is Frank LaRose. He's the current secretary of state who was essentially the face of this effort in Ohio, and it didn't succeed. It's never, obviously, a good thing in politics to be the face of a losing effort. However, I would say being the face of trying to fight the hardest to do this in a Republican primary electorate might not necessarily be the negative that people see it to be. But I do think if he is successful in that primary, it is, again, a possibility that would force abortion into that general election debate because of his brand and what he is now known for in the state of Ohio.

Also, in the national debate, there is a national debate happening among Republicans and Republican activists over whether there should be federal laws that draw lines over when abortion access can be restricted, especially around this idea that maybe there could be a 15-week abortion ban nationally. So the abortion conversation is not going away, even if there's not something on the ballot. I also think there's a broader point to what's happening in Ohio to think about in the context of the Senate. Democrats control the Senate very narrowly - 51-49. Republicans are heavily favored to win the majority in the 2024 elections because Democrats are almost exclusively on defense, running in states that elected Donald Trump, including Sherrod Brown in Ohio, Jon Tester in Montana, who's declared he's going to run for reelection, and Joe Manchin in West Virginia, who hasn't declared yet. These are very red states represented by Democratic senators. And I think the abortion issue makes these races maybe more competitive than they otherwise would be because these are states that are heavily populated by working-class voters - specifically white working-class voters - who have been moving en masse to the Republican Party.

But on the question of abortion, it's a little bit more complicated, particularly for working-class women. It is a visceral, real-time issue for a lot of voters. We saw that in Ohio. And I think it upends a lot of assumptions about how people vote and what people will do when this kind of issue is added into the national debate. So I think in some ways, they're all facing very uphill races to reelection, no doubt about it. But what's happening in Ohio and what's happening in other states and what we're seeing from voters tells me there's a lot of volatility, even in red states, when it comes to issues like this. And we need to be very open-minded about what that could mean in these elections.

PARKS: All right. Well, we can leave it there for today. I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting.

SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover politics.

DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I also cover politics.

PARKS: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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