The fall of Roe v. Wade brought people to the polls. Democrats need to learn from this.
Support for abortion rights appears to have been a major factor in the midterm elections, helping Democrats fare much better than expected in many places. Although Republicans seized control of the House of Representatives and hopes for federal legislation to codify Roe v. Wade over the next two years, the interim results suggest that abortion may be a winning strategy for Democrats. The result offers lessons for Democrats looking ahead to the 2024 presidential election that could determine whether a federal abortion ban is on the table.
But beyond that, the Midterms offer lessons on where and how reproductive rights advocates should focus their efforts in order to have the most immediate and widespread impact. A federal solution to ending constitutional abortion rights (like the Roe Codification) may not be offered, but there is growing momentum behind campaigns to restore or expand state reproductive rights, particularly through electoral measures.
The five ballot measures on abortion, all of which went pro-choice, were the clearest sign of not only public support for access to abortion, but also the strength of organizing on the issue at the state level. Vermont, California and Michigan passed amendments to add abortion rights to their constitutions by large majorities — 77, 67, and 57 percent, respectively. The Montaners slammed a confusingly written anti-abortion measure aimed at convincing voters that aborted fetuses are “born alive.” In Kentucky, a state with the highest anti-abortion percentage in the country, voters rejected an amendment declaring that there is no abortion right in the state constitution.
Coupled with the landslide defeat of an anti-abortion amendment in Kansas in August, five weeks after the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that toppled Roe, these victories demonstrate the power of ballot measures to secure majorities even in red states to mobilize the choice.
The abortion-rights action “had received more votes than many of the candidates and it crossed party lines,” Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a progressive organization that supports electoral action, told me.
Efforts are already underway in states like Idaho, Nebraska and Ohio to get pro-choice initiatives put to the vote. But there are limits to this strategy. Only about half of states have an electoral process that allows citizens, rather than state legislatures, to put an action on the ballot. Conservative efforts to change the citizen initiative process have increased in response to progressive victories since 2016, with 109 bills introduced that year alone, according to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.
In Michigan, the imminent threat of the state’s 1931 ban on abortion may have helped win voters not only for the Reproductive Freedom Initiative but also for Democratic candidates. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat and one of the staunchest defenders of abortion rights in the 2022 area, had sued to block the 90-year-old ban. Michigan voters not only reelected Ms. Whitmer, but handed control of both houses of the state legislature to Democrats for the first time in nearly 40 years. The winning formula for the change was “a cross-racial coalition” that included Indigenous, Latino and African American groups, as well as Republicans, independents and workers, according to the initiative’s deputy campaign manager Shanay Watson-Whittaker.
What brings Republicans and progressives together? “It was honestly Dobbs,” said Ms. Watson-Whittaker. “The decision brought everyone together.” At least in Michigan, this togetherness seems to have paid off for the Democrats.
A high-energy niche for this campaign was in the state’s Upper Peninsula, where Susan Anderson and other women from Sault Ste. Marie helped collect nearly 754,000 nationwide signatures to get the Reproductive Freedom Amendment on the ballot. Ms. Anderson, who works in accounting and has voted for Republican candidates in the past, said she was never involved in a political campaign until the Michigan change. “It changed my life,” Anderson said. “I want to focus on other things now.”
The women attended drag shows and farmers’ markets, organized marches and knocked on doors. Jonelle Cooper, a mother of three who cleans Airbnbs part-time, said she was motivated to participate in the campaign by her own experiences. She had an abortion when she was 18 and years later, after being unable to get the medical care she needed for a pregnancy loss, gave birth to a stillborn baby alone in a bathroom at a domestic violence shelter. “It’s become my full-time job,” Cooper told me five days before the vote. “I know what women will go through if that doesn’t happen.”
Sara Maurer said she stuck with the campaign even after her pastor objected to her participation and declared her out of fellowship with her beloved church. These women’s stories reflect the transformation of a growing pro-choice majority into a mobilized political force. But it will likely be more than several months before this movement, with its new and sometimes shaky alliances at the ballot box, can reach its full potential.
As expected, the midterms brought many losses for abortion rights. In Ohio, Republicans won all three vacant seats on the Ohio Supreme Court, a key backbone for abortion rights, and re-elected Gov. Mike DeWine, who signed the state’s six-week abortion ban (which is currently being enacted). Using cards that had been declared unconstitutional for favoring Republicans, the Ohio GOP expanded its supermajority in the state legislature even as voters fended off Republican supermajorities in North Carolina and Wisconsin, and a chamber each for Democrats in Minnesota and Pennsylvania surrendered.
A lesson from these losses is that deeply rooted anti-abortion opponents will take more than one election to uproot them — if that’s ever possible, especially in deeply rigged states like Ohio. Another reason is that support for legal abortion does not always translate into support for Democratic candidates.
Consider Kentucky, where 52 percent of voters rejected the anti-abortion motion, even though more than 60 percent of them reelected Senator Rand Paul, a Republican who is staunchly anti-abortion. The latest data shows that the campaign to reject the amendment won about 178,000 more votes than Paul’s Democratic opponent, Charles Booker. This gap suggests that many Republican and independent voters were convinced of the campaign’s central message: that the amendment could lead to the repeal of all abortion exceptions, even the limited life-threatening exception in Kentucky’s existing abortion ban.
“My granddaughter may not have the ability to terminate a pregnancy to stay alive,” says one grandmother in an ad created by the campaign. “We can’t go backwards.”
The ad echoes the widespread dismay of many voters at the loss of a 50-year-old right that is deeply personal. The reference to “reverse gear” speaks to a widespread fear that Roe’s termination could be a slippery slope to the decimation of other long-held rights, from birth control to interracial marriage. This burgeoning sense of fear and outrage stemming from personal experiences of the highly stigmatized issue of abortion may have been difficult to capture in polls.
In addition to the grandmother in the ad, there are young adult grandchildren to whom the interim results are to be thanked. The generation for whom the fall of Roe v. Wade will be a crucial political moment, numerous people appeared to vote. Early estimates show that 27 percent of young people turned out to vote — the second-highest percentage for a midterm election in the past 30 years after a record 2018 after Donald Trump’s election — and 63 percent of them voted for Democratic House candidates.
Efforts to restore abortion rights by a coalition that includes voters who have backed right-wing candidates will not be easy or straightforward – but interim results show they are on the right track.
“It took 50 years for people to undo Roe,” said Virginia Kase Solomón, CEO of the League of Women Voters. “We hope the restoration won’t take that long, but we know we have a way to go.”
Amy Littlefield is the abortion access correspondent for The Nation. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.