By David Pepper
In recent years, polling in Ohio has consistently confirmed that most Ohio voters support a woman’s right to choose. Polls have found that support hovering in the mid- to high-50s, which is a solid majority. It might not be a surprise then that 57 percent of Ohio voters recently voted Yes on Issue 1, the amendment that enshrined a right to reproductive freedom into the Ohio Constitution. That result reflected the solid majority consensus.
How did Ohio’s Issue 1 become such an epic battle, and why was there so much uncertainty going into Election Day? Why did the outcome feel far more meaningful than a simple confirmation of where Ohioans already stood?
Because in the year leading up to the election, Ohio officials repeatedly used government power itself to try to suppress that majority viewpoint. The actions of the government officials converted an already weighty battle over reproductive freedom into a far deeper battle over core democratic principles. The voters made the ultimate victory of Issue 1 a sweeping vindication for democracy itself.
It’s easy to forget just how many government levers were weaponized over the year to suppress Ohio’s prochoice majority. Let’s review them all.
A People’s Path
When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in the Dobbs decision, the court’s majority suggested that the issue of abortion access should be left to “the people of the states” to decide. Back in Ohio, a group of doctors took up that challenge, drafted language, and then collected signatures for the amendment that would become Issue 1.
By choosing Ohio’s initiative and amendment process, these advocates chose the process that the Ohio Constitution provides for the people to take direct action. It’s the people’s path to weigh in directly about our rights as Ohio citizens and to limit the government’s role if we so choose. This made sense because the government officials already had their say when they enacted an extreme abortion ban in 2019 that became Ohio law following Dobbs.
Even after advocates chose the people’s path to affect change, the same government officials refused to step aside. Even worse, to protect their own policies and favored interests, they began using all aspects of their government offices to scuttle the people’s process.
The pattern began almost immediately.
The August Special Election
With signatures being gathered, the gerrymandered legislature (remember, its members sit in districts that still violate the Ohio Constitution) passed a measure to lift the threshold to amend the Ohio Constitution to 60 percent. But because they needed this change to take place before November, they also passed a resolution for it to take place via an August special election, even though doing so violated a law they had recently passed banning August special elections. And in a disturbing decision, four justices of the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the legislature could indeed set an election on a day that violated their own state law.
Thankfully, that effort to rig the rules of Ohio’s democracy midstream failed in August. But the government effort to thwart the people was just warming up.
Ballot Manipulation and a Late Voter Purge
After the doctors’ group filed the required number of signatures, the ballot board—a government body that exists simply to summarize an amendment so it can appear on the small size of the ballots presented to voters—rewrote the language in a highly inflammatory way. The first red flag was that the board’s summary was longer than the amendment itself. Amid the summary’s many edits came the replacement of the term fetus with unborn child along with other loaded alterations to the text’s meaning. Once again, Ohio’s Supreme Court allowed these changes to happen. And no surprise, a poll late in the election found that the tainted summary did indeed reduce voter support for the measure.
With the ballot itself manipulated, another arm of government jumped into the propaganda. Ohio’s Senate—the official side, not a political arm—created its own media outlet to disseminate disinformation about Issue 1. Because the disinformation was hosted on an official government site, algorithms prioritized it in web searches about the issue.
Next, the Ohio attorney general released a “legal analysis” of Issue 1 to echo conservative talking points about what the measure would do. Governor Mike DeWine pledged that he would modify the abortion ban he signed in 2019 if Issue 1 failed. His statements left the false impression that Ohio government leaders would water down the ban that they had enthusiastically supported, again to convince voters to vote No on their own process.
Then a final surprise came in October from Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who had championed the August special election and authored the manipulated ballot summary. LaRose quietly purged 27,000 Ohio voters right around the time of the voter registration deadline, leaving no time for a voter who had been purged to re-register.
Add it all up and the leaders of an American state dedicated most of the year weaponizing the government itself—and the many tools it provides them (meant to be used responsibly)—to interfere with, manipulate, and misinform its own people about a people-led process to enshrine rights into the Ohio Constitution.
A Defiant Rejection and the Need for Vigilance
The 57–43 win by Issue 1 was a defiant rejection of all those antidemocratic tactics, and these results amounted to a powerful victory for democracy.
But amid that victory, the year-long struggle provides a sober reminder of the stakes and antidemocratic tactics of today’s politics. It’s also a reminder of the need for continued vigilance. The consistent inclination to subvert democracy at the front end of an election could just as easily be acted upon after the election takes place.
So, amid a historic victory, the battle for democracy goes on.
David Pepper is a Kettering senior fellow, former chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, and author of Laboratories of Autocracy and Saving Democracy.