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Ohio Democrats consider trying to have voters directly decide issues like abortion

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Across the country, Democrats are eyeing measures that could both enshrine abortion rights and drive voters to the polls next year. We will see that begin to play out in one state tomorrow in a high-stakes special election. NPR's Kelsey Snell has this report.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: The election in Ohio this week may seem like a basic question of how to change the state's constitution, but this has all become a proxy for the fight over abortion rights.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Out-of-state special interest groups want it to be easy to change our Ohio state Constitution.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Protect majority rule. Vote no on Issue 1.

SNELL: Republicans in the state want to increase the threshold to pass a ballot measure, and they want signatures from electors in every county in the state in order to bring an amendment to voters. This effort could seriously curb efforts to pass new ballot initiatives or even bring those questions to voters in the first place. And it comes at a time when Democrats want to do just that.

ELAINE KAMARCK: So right now, we have maybe the most powerful ballot initiative we've ever seen, which is the ballot initiatives over the question of abortion.

SNELL: That's Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. She says big, powerful issues drive people to vote. And when abortion rights were on the ballot in the midterm election last year, Democrats had a clear advantage.

KAMARCK: What we've seen is they've drawn out more pro-choice than anti-choice people, and those people may then vote for Democrats on other parts of the ballot.

SNELL: Democrats in several states are already eyeing abortion-related ballot initiatives for 2024. The list includes Arizona, Pennsylvania and Florida - all potential swing states. Sarah Walker of the progressive Ballot Initiative Strategy Center says this tool has been used by both parties since about the 1800s.

SARAH WALKER: Ballot initiatives are being used right now and have historically been used more heavily at moments and times where the public does not feel like the government is actually representing them.

SNELL: When the Supreme Court struck down the nationwide right to an abortion, many voters were motivated to act. As Republican-led states have moved to further restrict abortion rights, ballot initiatives have sprung up in response. Walker says these measures give voters a voice on policy without representatives in the middle.

WALKER: I think what people want is they want to see systemic societal issues addressed.

SNELL: Republicans used the same strategy to drive conservative votes in 2004 when the issue was gay marriage. At the time, amendments to define marriages between only a man and a woman passed in 11 states, in many cases with margins above 60%. Now, abortion clearly energizes Democrats, and it could be the key to driving young people and independents to the polls in 2024.

FRANK LUNTZ: So all you have to do is drive that age group out to the polls through some issue, and that gives the Democrats a significant advantage. And on the abortion issue, they support the Democratic position also by 2 to 1.

SNELL: That's Frank Luntz. He's a Republican political strategist. He says there is no downside to this strategy for Democrats. Voters want to have a voice, and this is one way to ensure they feel heard.

LUNTZ: Anything that gives voters that sense that it actually matters to go out and vote is going to increase turnout.

SNELL: The election this week in Ohio could change the outcome in that state this year. But voters in nearly a dozen other states may have a chance to weigh in on abortion next year.

Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.

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