Guest Commentary: The Political Strategy Against Ohio Abortion Rights Is to Manufacture Hysteria, Stack the Deck

With the legislature rigged by gerrymandering and the court stacked for favoritism, Ohio Republicans aren’t done attacking voters, our columnist says.

click to enlarge Pro-choice demonstrators gather during the Bigger Than Roe: Women's March event in Cincinnati on Jan. 21, 2023. - Photo: Aidan Mahoney
Photo: Aidan Mahoney
Pro-choice demonstrators gather during the Bigger Than Roe: Women's March event in Cincinnati on Jan. 21, 2023.

The political strategy to try to defeat Ohio’s proposed abortion rights amendment is wildly obvious: Manufacture hysteria over a slippery slope legal fallacy about parents' rights, and use all levers of power at every level to stack the deck against Ohio voters and in favor of right-wing extremists.

The first tool in stacking the deck against Ohio votes has been extreme gerrymandering, which assaulted Ohio elections from 2011 to 2021 — ranked among the worst in the country — earning Republicans undue supermajorities that allowed them in 2021 and 2022 to steamroll past redistricting reform written into the Ohio Constitution by more than 71% of Ohio voters in 2015 and nearly 75% in 2018.

Against the voters’ will, the rule of law, and seven bipartisan Ohio Supreme Court decisions declaring Republican gerrymandering of Ohio’s Statehouse and Congressional districts unconstitutional, the GOP-majority on the Ohio Redistricting Commission again rigged Ohio political maps with gerrymandering, forcing voters to cast ballots in unconstitutional districts in 2022, and winning even bigger Republican supermajorities at the Statehouse.

Anti-abortion zealot Gov. Mike DeWine then appointed an old family friend with a history of scandal to the Ohio Supreme Court, Joe Deters. An anti-abortion zealot himself, Deters was named as Hamilton County prosecutor in the lawsuit against Ohio’s extremist abortion ban, which wreaked havoc on Ohioans’ lives with heartbreaking and devastating consequences for months and forced a 10-year-old rape survivor to flee the state for abortion care.

As a named party, Deters recused himself from the case. But in his place, Republican Supreme Court Chief Justice Sharon Kennedy appointed a judge who has served on an advisory board for an anti-abortion crisis pregnancy center, the 12th District Court of Appeals’ Matthew Byrne.

Now, whether it’s the abortion rights supporters’
lawsuit against the state’s disastrous law, or a new lawsuit brought by a couple of members of Cincinnati Right to Life against the Ohio Ballot Board’s approval of the proposed abortion rights amendment, Ohioans have no reason to trust that our state supreme court will function as anything other than a reactionary rubber stamp for right-wing extremism.

With the legislature rigged by gerrymandering and the court stacked for favoritism, Ohio Republicans aren’t done attacking voters.

On Wednesday, an Ohio House committee heard a revived Frankenstein proposal to make it harder for voters to amend our Ohio Constitution by raising the threshold for passage from 50% to 60%.

This is opposed by more than 140 Ohio groups representing voters, teachers, the faith community, and good government.

This new proposal also erects further barriers, such as making signature-gatherers collect from all 88 counties instead of 44 and eliminating a signature-gathering curing period where petitioners can collect more signatures in an attempt to make up for any invalid ones gathered.

This would give 41% of voters and a gerrymandered Republican supermajority legislature authority over all Ohioans on every issue no matter what a majority of sensible Ohioans actually want.

This would be the final slip to establish extremist minority rule over the sane and reasonable majority of Ohioans.

Sponsored by Republican state Rep. Brian Stewart and conceived in coordination with Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose with the support of the religious fanatics at the Center for Christian Virtue, LaRose denied that he wanted to block abortion protections or anti-gerrymandering measures when he announced plans to overhaul the direct democracy over our constitution that Ohioans have enjoyed responsibly since 1912.

But in a letter to Ohio House colleagues in December, Stewart gave the whole game away by listing only two reasons for Republican lawmakers to support attacking voters’ ability to amend our constitution: abortion and gerrymandering.

In the months since, two different groups working toward abortion rights amendments combined forces to bring forward one, unified proposal, and announced plans to put their proposed amendment on the November ballot.

They then gathered initial signatures and had summary language certified by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, and the Ohio Ballot Board verified that the proposal comprises one amendment and could move forward to the full signature-gathering stage.

The effort must now collect more than 400,000 signatures from 44 of 88 counties by July 5 to make the November ballot.

Just as that was happening, a 501(c)(4) dark money operation called Protect Women Ohio, “dedicated to defeating Ohio’s extreme anti-parent amendment” in a coalition of Ohio anti-choice groups from Ohio Right to Life to the Center for Christian Virtue, last week launched a $5 million ad campaign against the proposal.

Then this week, the Ohio House began moving forward their revived and worsened proposal to make it harder for voters to amend our constitution, also supported by the Center for Christian Virtue, with the intention of putting it on an August ballot, so that the abortion rights amendment might be threatened by a new 60% threshold in November.

This comes mere months after Ohio Republican lawmakers eliminated regular August special elections because they said they were too expensive with low turnout.

Stewart tweeted in support of eliminating the August elections. “I’ve wanted to eliminate the August special election for my entire time as a public official,” he wrote, calling them wasteful.

Now there’s a new bill in the Ohio Senate to once again allow special elections in August “for certain purposes.”

Ohio’s 2022 August special election cost $20 million, and Stewart admitted Wednesday that a special August election this year for this proposal will likely also cost $20 million.

Originally, Stewart tried to justify his proposal by stoking fear of special interests trying to take advantage of “sleepy May primaries” for low voter turnout while he tried to put his own proposal on a sleepy May primary ballot.

That effort failed and missed the Feb. 1 deadline for May. So now Stewart is asking for a $20 million special election to put his proposal on a sleepy August ballot with an eye toward low turnout.

The fewer people that vote the better shot they think they have asking voters to relinquish our own power, apparently. Stewart said Wednesday he’s seen polling. I’m sure he’s calculated his assault accordingly.

And if they do convince Ohioans to relinquish our democratic power to their extremism, they need it to be in place before November. When various other states protected abortion rights against extremist laws last year, voters did so in Kentucky with 52.3%, Montana with 52.5%, Michigan with 56.6%, and Kansas with 59%.

In another exchange Wednesday with state Rep. Dontavius Jarrells, where Jarrells asked Stewart if he is afraid of the people’s right to voice their choice on laws, Stewart said no because he believes voters are holding the legislature accountable by electing their representatives.

After seven bipartisan rulings that Ohio is gerrymandered, Stewart pretending that Ohioans have legitimate representative government as he wages this effort to harm voters further is both absurd and obscene.

They: Gerrymander the legislature; use the gerrymandered legislature to indulge all manner of corruption and criminality; attack a majority of Ohio voters’ ability to hold that gerrymandered legislature accountable; claim that accountability is available through unconstitutionally gerrymandered elections; stack the courts to sanction gerrymandering as well as extremist laws; if one court doesn’t play ball, shop cases to friendly judges who will; and fear-monger about dark money, out-of-state special interests while working in concert with dark money, out-of-state special interests.

Politically, it hardly gets more amoral and disdainful of the rule of law, democracy, and voters than this.

Republican Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman is in the bag for any manner of illegal gerrymandering and dirty, anti-democratic politics conceivable, and Republican state Sens. Theresa Gavarone, author of Ohio’s newest slew of election restrictions, and Rob McColley, stand-in participant in redistricting commission gerrymandering, have introduced a companion resolution in the Ohio Senate as SJR 2.

Everything now really hinges on the decision-making of Republican Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens, who enjoys his present position because Democrats put him in it.

The fractured Ohio House has been slow-going so far this year.

Stephens is certainly anti-abortion, but is he honest enough to recognize that this has been shown to be — with awful real-life examples of impact — a fundamentally bad and harmful law and the vast majority of Ohioans are not extremists on abortion?

Ohioans generally believe there should be some restrictions on abortions, but abortion care should not be criminalized and banned as it is under Ohio’s extremist law.

And even if Stephens doesn’t agree with a majority of Ohioans on abortion rights, is he patriotic enough to resist assaulting Ohio voters and democracy in favor of 41% minority rule?

I always expect the worst when it comes to Ohio politics, so if anything good ever happens I can be pleasantly surprised.

Stephens is going to have some decisions to make, and what he decides — on whether to join the assault on majority rule in Ohio and eventually on continued gerrymandering — will help define not only his own legacy in Ohio history but also the legitimacy of Ohio government for years to come.

This article was originally published by the Ohio Capital Journal and is republished here with permission.

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About The Author

David Dewitt, Ohio Capital Journal

David Dewitt, Ohio Capital Journal

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