Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment on 7 November, guaranteeing its citizens the right to abortion access, but a group of rightwing Republican lawmakers is already trying to reverse that result.
The referendum, which Ohioans passed by 57% of votes, established a constitutional right to an abortion, overriding laws passed by the Republican-dominated legislature to dramatically restrict access. In response, 27 GOP members of the Ohio general assembly signed a statement the next day arguing the abortion rights proposal “failed to mention a single, specific law”, and vowing to “do everything in [their] power” to prevent the restrictive abortion laws on the books in Ohio from being challenged.
Related: Ohio Republicans move to exclude judges from interpreting enshrined abortion rights
Four of them went even further, circulating draft legislation to give the legislature “exclusive authority over implementing” the constitutional amendment at the exclusion of the courts – a move legal experts have decried as unconstitutional.
“To prevent mischief by pro-abortion courts,” wrote the four Republican lawmakers in a statement, “Ohio legislators will consider removing jurisdiction from the judiciary over this ambiguous ballot initiative.”
The move is the latest attempt by some Republicans in the state to use their iron grip on the state legislature to push anti-democratic efforts. The legislature has for years declined to heed a 2015 ballot measure prohibiting partisan gerrymandering and attempted in August to make it harder for voters to directly affect policy through referendums. The latest move goes much further, essentially challenging the authority of the courts and the constitution.
This is Schoolhouse Rock-type stuff. We need to make sure that we have the three branches of the government
Ohio house speaker Jason Stephens
The draft legislation, however, has been rejected even by high-ranking Republicans: the house speaker, Jason Stephens, called it a non-starter and a clear violation of the basic democratic principle of separation of powers. “This is Schoolhouse Rock-type stuff. We need to make sure that we have the three branches of the government,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
Mike DeWine, the Republican Ohio governor, also expressed doubts about the bill’s chances. “I don’t think the public should start thinking that it is going to become law,” DeWine said on Monday.
Matt Huffman, the state senate majority leader, who vocally opposed the abortion rights amendment, has yet to weigh in. But he has already floated another alternative: holding another referendum on abortion access to undo the recent decision. Huffman is term-limited and it’s widely expected he will run for a seat in the state house of representatives. There’s been buzz locally that if he wins, Huffman could challenge Stephens for the speakership. Huffman did not respond to a request for comment.
But just because the Republican proposal isn’t likely to be adopted doesn’t make it irrelevant. Voting rights advocates and political observers see it as just the latest effort to undermine democracy and cement rightwing policies, even if they’re at odds with the majority of Ohio’s voters.
“The threat of election subversion is just as powerful as subversion itself, because it erodes trust and makes people question whether or not they want to participate – whether or not their vote will be counted, [and] whether after it’s counted, if it will actually be respected,” said Kayla Griffin, the Ohio state director of the voting rights group All Voting Is Local.
State Republicans ignored a 2015 referendum prohibiting partisan gerrymandering and drew maps that gave Republicans an advantage in both branches of the legislature – they have a supermajority in each – and a lopsided number of congressional seats.
“There is a disconnect between what voters want and what the legislature wants
Catherine Turcer of Common Cause Ohio
The conservative-leaning state supreme court ruled seven times that the maps violated the constitution, and after every ruling the legislature returned maps to the court without meaningfully changing them. The swing vote on the court retired at the end of 2022, leaving behind a court that will likely side with the GOP and let them preserve their supermajorities in the legislature.
Those maps have given them immense power to do whatever they want with state laws, even if they’re unpopular with majorities of Ohioans.
“There is a disconnect between what voters want and what the legislature wants,” said Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio. “It just highlights how gerrymandered the state legislature is.”
This summer, Republicans also tried to weaken the one check voters have on their power by making it dramatically harder to pass a statewide constitutional amendment – specifically targeting the abortion initiative in November. The proposal would have raised the threshold to pass citizen-led ballot measures from a simple majority to 60%. Voters rejected it by a wide margin in August.
Frank LaRose, the Republican secretary of state, who opposed the abortion amendment, then rewrote the ballot language for the November election to include the term “unborn child”, rather than “fetus”, a move that opponents criticized as trying to unduly sway voters.
The latest threats by the right wing of the state GOP to suppress the implementation of the constitutional amendment are a marked escalation in that effort.
If Republicans in the state legislature were to pass their proposed legislation challenging the authority of the courts to interpret the constitution, the issue would almost certainly end up disputed in court.
“It really represents an attempt to interfere with the judicial branch,” said Steven Steinglass, dean emeritus of the Cleveland State University College of Law and the author of The Ohio State Constitution: A Reference Guide. “It violates the Ohio principles of separation of powers.”
The latest proposal appears too much even for the state’s leading Republicans. But it shows how far some elected officials are willing to go to try to force their views on their state – even when it’s clear that large majorities of Ohioans disagree.
“This is certainly coming from a far-right faction of the Republican caucus. That said, this faction has gained more and more power,” said the Ohio Democratic house minority leader, Allison Russo. “It just speaks to how this body has become more and more extreme.”