In November, in one of the nation’s most closely watched ballot questions, Ohioans enshrined reproductive freedom in the state constitution, approving Issue 1 by a 13-point margin.
Key to victory was the work of progressive faith-based coalitions such as the regional interfaith group Greater Cleveland Congregations (GCC), whose work to defend direct democracy against sabotage by state legislators last summer made the triumph possible.
The UU Congregation of Cleveland, a GCC member, is deeply involved in work to defend democracy and secure reproductive rights. The congregation credits two programs at the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) with building their organizing capacity and helping them contribute to the Issue 1 victory.
Additionally, four members participated in the organizing school offered by the Side with Love campaign. Rev. Randy Partain, the congregation’s minister, observed of the participants, “they came through with hope, enthusiasm, and a new set of organizing tools.”
Inequities in access to reproductive care due to race, location, gender identification, financial status, and more are why UUs are committed to Reproductive Justice.
For additional information, read the 2015 Statement of Conscience.
The Side with Love program included post-school coaching.
“We hit the jackpot by getting Susan Leslie from the UUA campaign [Side With Love] as our mentor,” said Laurie Albright, the congregation’s liaison to the GCC. Albright credits that mentorship with building the confidence and skills needed to organize successfully.
“We soon went from almost no congregants engaging in organizing to more than seventy,” said Albright. Until participating in the organizing school, she lacked full understanding of how much the congregation could do within the limits of IRS rules for tax-exempt organizations, she added.
Teaming up with other faiths was essential to success, Albright said.
“As a single congregation, we’d have limited impact, but through GCC, we [built power] working alongside people we normally wouldn’t interact with,” she said.
Albright praised the work of Ohio Physicians for Reproductive Rights for pushing Issue 1 onto the 2023 ballot when many groups were content to wait until 2024.
The physicians’ group “basically said, ‘Our patients can’t wait,’ and then invested hard work and generous funding to protect those people,” noted Albright.
How Did Ohioans Help Protect Direct Democracy in Their State?
Not all the GCC members shared the UU congregation’s enthusiasm for working to embed reproductive rights in the state constitution, but all share UUs’ core belief in the right to democracy.
The entire coalition signed on to help defeat a scheme to effectively strip Ohio citizens of their ability to amend the constitution.
Ohio is one of at least twenty-four states in the country where citizens can make law via proactive initiatives that require them and organizations to gather a certain number of signatures and meet other conditions to place binding questions on ballots. Referenda and initiatives may enact or repeal statutes, depending on the state.
Eighteen states enable citizens to amend their constitutions via initiatives.
An August referendum placed on the ballot by Ohio’s GOP lawmakers would have made it harder to move forward with citizen-proposed changes to the state constitution by requiring initiatives to win 60 percent supermajorities to become law.
That ballot measure was a legislatively referred referendum, meaning the state legislature created the question and placed it on the ballot.
At the time of the state lawmakers’ maneuver, opinion polls showed 58 percent of Ohio voters supporting abortion rights.
In another win for direct democracy, voters rejected that supermajority threshold in the special election.
How Are Americans Using State Ballot Initiatives to Bring Change?
Ohioans are not alone in embracing direct democracy to overrule their elected legislators.
After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022 and eliminated the federal constitutional right to abortion, several states instituted abortion bans or restrictions.
But citizens in states where they are empowered to directly make law are not tolerating politicians stripping away reproductive choice.
Abortion rights advocates have won seven of seven ballot questions. Voters in Kansas, Montana, and Kentucky rejected anti-abortion measures, while California, Michigan, Vermont, and Ohio embedded affirmative rights to reproductive choice. Additional states will likely feature citizens making law on reproductive rights via ballot questions in 2024.
Inspired by those successes, people in a dozen or more states (among the twenty-four enabling proactive citizen initiatives) are exploring ballot measures to enact statutes or amend state constitutions to secure reproductive freedom.
How Can Citizen Lawmaking Ensure That Democracy Endures?
Despite the narrative that our country is deeply divided politically, ballot question results repeatedly show that most voters—even those in “deep red” states—routinely favor progressive policies when voting on issues rather than on candidates.
For example, red state voters would have decisively favored Medicaid expansion, minimum wage increases and nonpartisan redistricting to thwart gerrymandering.
Protecting and expanding citizen lawmaking is a crucial strategy for enacting policies that advance justice and equity. That consideration led UU the Vote to increase support for ballot initiative organizing in 2022, and recent results will surely sustain that emphasis as we enter the 2024 election cycle.
By correcting politicians who act against the peoples’ interest, expanding direct democracy might also help mend partisan division.