Citizens Use Direct Democracy to Secure Reproductive Rights

Citizens Use Direct Democracy to Secure Reproductive Rights

As voters successfully fight repressive laws, more GOP legislatures attempt to stifle citizen initiatives.

Jeff Milchen


After the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson ruling discarded fifty years of precedent protecting abortion rights last June, Kansas GOP legislators wasted no time seizing the opportunity. They promptly placed a referendum on the August 2022 ballot that would amend the state constitution to deny a right to abortion, negating a 2019 Kansas Supreme Court ruling. Republicans had dominated both the Kansas House and Senate for three decades, so the legislators believed voters would take their side and enable the state to force childbirth.

But lawmakers’ hopes were crushed as voters defeated the referendum by a stunning 18-point margin, foreshadowing a November Election Day in which reproductive choice advocates swept five more statewide ballot questions. The wins included embedding a right to abortion in the constitutions of Michigan and California, and thwarting anti-choice measures in Montana and Kentucky.

Twenty-four states enable proactive initiatives and, among those, eighteen allow initiatives to propose constitutional amendments while twenty-one allow initiatives to propose statutes. Two additional states empower citizens to nullify laws but not enact new ones.

Unitarian Universalists, who helped achieve several of these victories, understand the impact of onerous abortion bans. As Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, stated, the Dobbs “decision will disproportionately harm already vulnerable communities, including people of color, young people, poor and working-class people, and those living in rural areas.”

Naturally, such success in even the most conservative states (Kentucky favored Donald Trump over Joe Biden by 26 points in 2020) inspired pro-choice advocates to push for ballot initiatives in many more states. But rather than recognizing the overwhelming support for reproductive rights and negotiating, many state legislatures are moving to strip citizens of their lawmaking power. Several states have unleashed a wave of bills to undermine ballot initiatives via three tactical categories: keeping initiatives from reaching the ballot, impeding passage, and altering voters’ intent post-passage. These schemes undermine the Unitarian Universalist Principle supporting democratic rights.

Sixty-four percent of Floridians say abortion should be legal in most or all cases, yet the legislature just enacted a near-total abortion ban. Of course, citizens could negate such a law via ballot initiative under current law, so on April 19, a Florida House committee passed a resolution that would raise the threshold to pass a constitutional amendment initiative to an unprecedented 66.7 percent supermajority. The resolution ultimately would need to be passed by voters, but that task is made easier by the DeSantis Administration’s intimidation tactics and sabotaging of citizens’ previous voting rights initiatives.

On the same day Florida legislators advanced their scheme, Ohio Senate Republicans passed a bill stating future constitutional amendment initiatives must win a 60 percent supermajority to pass. While the change requires voter approval, the bill’s backers are conspiring to schedule an August special election when turnout is low—especially among younger people. This would reverse a vote from just months ago banishing these special elections due to their cost and minimal participation.

The UUA has advocated for reproductive justice for more than fifty years through public education, legal engagement, and providing direct support for people needing abortion care.

A leaked letter explicitly said the obstruction is intended to block both a reproductive rights initiative that is in the signature-gathering stage and a planned initiative to reform Ohio’s grossly gerrymandered voting districts. The proposed Amendment affirms, “Every individual has a right to make and carry out one’s own reproductive decisions, including but not limited to decisions on contraception, fertility treatment, continuing one’s own pregnancy, miscarriage care, and abortion.”

Just qualifying a citizen initiative to appear on the ballot already is a difficult and expensive feat in Ohio. The state requires 413,000 valid signatures, but that total is greatly complicated by a requirement that at least forty-four (of eighty-eight) counties provide signatures equal to 5 percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election in that county. Several other GOP-led states are weighing bills to implement such signature dispersal requirements that obstruct grassroots efforts and grant disproportionate power to rural areas at the expense of more diverse city residents.

The Ohio legislature passed a near-total abortion ban that took effect when the U.S. Supreme Court struck downRoe v Wade last year, but the law was blocked from taking effect by an Ohio judge while a lawsuit is adjudicated.

In Montana, where 64 percent of people support legal abortion and even a deliberately vague anti-abortion ballot question lost in 2022, legislators now are working to preempt future initiatives. A pending Montana bill would force citizen groups to pay a $3,700 filing fee just to start a petition drive while giving state officials the power to reject a proposed initiative if they deemed it similar to any that failed within the previous four years. Such schemes dovetail with the interests of corporations that already wield great power in the Capitol and can easily afford such costs but often object to grassroots initiatives.

These obstructive tactics around the United States appear to be working. Since 2016, the average total cost of a petition drive nationwide increased by almost 300 percent, while the number of citizen initiatives that qualified for the ballot decreased 61 percent.

To be clear, the attacks against citizen lawmaking go beyond reproductive rights. Results in 2022 continued a trend of progressive victories on a wide range of issues. For example, Floridians voted to restore voting rights to previously incarcerated voters, enacted environmental and workplace protections, legalized medical marijuana, and more. Raise the Wage Ohio already is gathering signatures to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.

A map of states with ballot initiatives marked.

Ballot initiatives were a major focus of the UUA’s 2022 UU the Votecampaign. The Fairness Projectand the Ballot Initiative Strategy Centerare great sources for learning about direct democracy as a tool to advance justice. Ballotpediais a top source for facts about ballot initiatives and referenda, and data from races across the country.

Courtesy Ballotpedia

Direct democracy is overwhelmingly popular with people of widely varying ideologies and offers people a tool to rein in legislatures of any ideological bent that disregard their constituents. As gerrymandering has made ever-fewer legislative seats competitive, citizen initiatives are more vital for defending the UU Principle of the right to democracy.

Since anti-choice advocates often claim religious beliefs as inspiration, Unitarian Universalists should continue to espouse our support publicly for reproductive justice—and our deeply-held belief in democracy—to ensure progressive faith perspectives are at least as visible as those regressive views. Let’s step up and defeat the escalating attempts to replace democratic processes with minority rule— it’s a prerequisite for advancing justice and protecting the most vulnerable among us.

UUA Justice Communications Associate Jeff Milchen welcomes your comments or questions. Tweet @JMilchen.