By Daniel Strauss and Jeff Zeleny, Chief National Affairs Correspondent
(CNN) — A Tuesday special election in Ohio puts the state at the center of the abortion rights debate – even though the issue isn’t technically on the ballot.
At stake are the rules for amending the state constitution in the future. The question on the ballot, known as Issue 1, asks whether Ohio voters should be able to change the constitution with a simple majority vote or whether it should take a higher, 60% majority threshold. If Issue 1 passes (it needs only a simple majority of “yes” voters), it will be in place when a separate measure to enshrine new abortion rights into the constitution is on the ballot in November.
To put it more simply: Abortion rights advocates want Issue 1 to fail and anti-abortion advocates want it to pass.
“For me, as an old-fashioned conservative, should it be hard to amend the constitution? Yes, I think it should be hard to amend the constitution. But of course, there’s these other things going on too, let’s all face it. This is about the November election. This is about abortion. And this is about a lot of things in addition to the philosophical approach to amending the constitution,” said Doug Preisse, a veteran GOP strategist and emeritus state Republican Party chairman.
Amy Fogel, a volunteer with Red Wine and Blue, a liberal-leaning grassroots activist group, said Republican lawmakers in Ohio made the matter intentionally confusing and called it a “blatant power grab.”
“The legislature made August elections illegal just earlier this year because they knew it was unpopular, with very low voter turnout, and it costs Ohio voters tens of millions of dollars,” Fogel told CNN. “They brought it back because time and time again when voters are asked to vote on reproductive freedom, it usually almost always passes.”
Critics of Issue 1 point to the fact that Republicans in the Ohio state assembly voted to hold the single-measure election, a reversal of a prior vote ending August special elections. They say this is a thinly veiled push to tighten abortion restrictions.
“The entire reason we’re putting Issue 1 on the August ballot was to prevent abortion from being on the November ballot,” said Ohio-based Democratic strategist Aaron Pickrell.
The elections – both Tuesday’s and the one in November – come more than a year after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, returning the abortion debate to the states. Ohio is the only state to have abortion rights on the ballot this year, as pro-abortion rights activists in the Buckeye State gathered more than 700,000 signatures in support of the ballot initiative this year.
It’s rare that singular ballot initiatives garner so much local and national attention. Strategists and advocates point to long lines of early voters, the outsized spending and ramped up television ads in the last week before the vote as indicators that this election is garnering unusually high attention. According to state early vote tallies on Monday, almost 700,000 people had voted early on Issue 1 – a sign of high turnout for a single ballot initiative.
Outside groups have poured more than $26 million into advertising on both sides, escalating a potentially sleepy summer election into a bitter, hard-fought contest about abortion and far more. Well-known donors have thrown in cash as well. Republican megadonor Richard Uihlein from Illinois has poured $4 million into the “yes” vote Save Our Constitution group. The pro-“no” vote group One Person One Vote has raised $14.8 million.
Protect Our Constitution, a group focused on passing Issue 1, has spent almost $2.7 million on advertising, according to AdImpact data. Protect Women Ohio, a group focused on fighting new protections for abortion in November, had spent $7 million ahead of the Tuesday vote.
The pitch for the “yes” proponents is that, officially, this is about a number of topics important to varying advocacy groups.
“What we are saying is this isn’t just about abortion. No, for Mike Gonidakis, president of Ohio [Right To Life], it’s 100% about abortion, but for my next door neighbor who’s a police officer, this all about his ability to do his job because this is an organization called Ohioans For Qualified Immunity, the legal shield police officers and firefighters have,” Gonidakis said.
“They’re voting ‘yes’ to protect our qualified immunity, their way of life and pensions to not get sued. They don’t care about the abortion issue. My other neighbor: Second Amendment fan. And that’s why the NRA is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Ohio Right To Life.”
Gonidakis added: “This isn’t a proxy vote on abortion. … It’s the greatest stakes of the pro-life movement and Ohio Right To Life’s history, but that’s our reason. The NRA doesn’t care. The Ohio Chamber of Commerce could give two hoots.”
Former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, a Democrat, bristled at that argument in an interview on Monday.
“The anti-abortion folks want to have this both ways. They want to say this because this is all about the November abortion vote coming but they’ve made it even bigger than that. They are correct it’s even bigger about abortion because it’s a state’s one person one vote,” Whaley said.
Abortion rights advocates have reason to be optimistic. Just weeks after the Dobbs ruling threw out national abortion rights protections last summer, voters in deep-red Kansas decisively voted against changing the state constitution that would have allowed the state legislature to install new abortion restrictions. Majorities of voters have backed abortions rights in every state ballot initiative – in both blue states and red states – ever since
The victories for abortion rights advocates haven’t ended there. In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer – with the help of the state’s Democratic legislative majorities secured during the 2022 midterms – repealed a 1931 law banning abortion in April. And in Wisconsin, a high-stakes election for the nonpartisan state Supreme Court resulted in the victory of the liberal-aligned candidate, who put abortion at the center of her campaign.
Opponents of Ohio’s Tuesday ballot measure see signs of high turnout as especially promising.
“The public is getting up,” a Democratic strategist familiar with the efforts to block the Tuesday measure said. “We believe that people are paying attention and that is accruing to our benefit. The people who need to know it’s about abortion know it’s about abortion and are coming out to vote.”
Of course, the Issue 1 vote is only part of the battle. Whatever the outcome Tuesday, there will be another vote in November on whether to enshrine new abortion protections into the state constitution.
Still, opponents of abortion rights believe Ohio will be different. Gonidakis said after the events in Kansas and Michigan, his group did post-mortems to see what worked and what didn’t. They found that their sister anti-abortion organizations had started too late.
“We started back in December before they even started because we just knew it was coming,” Gonidakis said. “We got way ahead of the curve based on Michigan and Kansas.”
US Sen. J.D. Vance, one of the most high-profile Ohio Republicans who supports passing Issue 1, predicted Friday that it would likely be a “super close” outcome.
“You could have 1.5 million, 2 million votes,” Vance said, according to Cleveland.com. “It’s probably going to be decided by a few thousand people.”
Whaley argued that the “yes” on Issue 1 advocates want to have it “both ways”: they want this portrayed both as an issue paramount to the anti-abortion rights movement but also one equally as important to other interest groups.
If the Issue 1 advocates don’t get their outcome Tuesday night, that will just raise the stakes for November.
“We work harder and try to win in November,” Gonidakis said.
™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.
David Wright contributed to this story.