Following Abortion Ballot Measure Efforts? You Should Follow State Legislature Races Too

Over a dozen states with abortion bans in place require that state legislatures introduce abortion-related ballot measures. And in states where abortion rights measures have passed, Republican-controlled legislatures continue to undermine them, new research shows.

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Following Abortion Ballot Measure Efforts? You Should Follow State Legislature Races Too

Since 2022, one thing has been abundantly clear: The right to abortion is popular, and forced pregnancy and birth by way of abortion bans is not. Abortion has fundamentally shaped every post-Dobbs election that’s taken place thus far, including helping a Democrat win the governor’s race in Kentucky. And of the half dozen states that have voted directly on abortion-related ballot measures since Dobbs, reproductive rights have won—even in states like Ohio and Montana. 

This election cycle, about a dozen states are trying to get abortion rights measures on the ballot or have successfully gotten their proposals to qualify for the ballot come November. Each of these measures—in states including Missouri, Arizona, Florida, and South Dakota—presents an exciting opportunity to reverse an abortion ban that’s in place or solidly protect abortion rights from future bans. But if you’re following any of these measures, a new research memo shared by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee highlights that it’s just as important to follow state legislative races this cycle.

Control of state legislatures is necessary to allow successful abortion rights measures to fully take effect after elections. DLCC President Heather Williams told Jezebel it’s “great that abortion ballot measures are getting this attention.” But they should underscore that “reproductive freedoms are first and foremost being decided in the states and in state legislatures—that’s where we need to continue to build power to really protect these rights.”

The DLCC’s research cites a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation published earlier this year, which shows that in 15 of the 25 states that have abortion bans, only the state legislature can put abortion-related ballot measures directly to the electorate. These states include Idaho, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, and West Virginia. (Wyoming, Utah, and Iowa also require abortion-related ballot measures to be introduced by the state legislature, but their abortion bans are currently temporarily blocked in court, KFF notes.) In these states, Democratic-controlled legislatures are essential to put abortion rights measures to a vote.

In Missouri, where abortion rights organizers recently submitted well over the number of signatures to qualify for the November ballot, and Montana, where abortion rights organizers recently got the green light to begin collecting signatures, Republicans hold the supermajority in both the Senate and the House. But Williams points to how the broad popularity of abortion rights—even in “red” states like Missouri and Montana—could mobilize voters to potentially narrow or end these supermajorities.

In Ohio, voters decisively passed an abortion rights measure in November. But immediately afterward, the Republican supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature introduced legislation that would allow them to oversee the implementation and enforcement of successful ballot measures instead of the state courts. It was a jarring example of how Republican legislatures can potentially undermine the will of the electorate, even if an abortion measure is successful at the ballot box. Despite Ohio Republicans’ best efforts, abortion remains legal in the state. But litigation surrounding the ballot measure is ongoing

Meanwhile, the Florida Supreme Court approved a six-week abortion ban in April while also allowing a ballot measure to enshrine a right to abortion in the state to move forward. But should the measure ultimately pass, the DLCC stipulates that supermajorities in both Florida’s state House and Senate would continue to undermine abortion rights. And in Arizona, which is currently embroiled in turmoil over their Supreme Court’s decision to allow a Civil War-era abortion ban to take effect, abortion rights advocates recently submitted the number of signatures needed to get a measure on the ballot in November. Except Republicans hold a two-seat advantage in both the state House and state Senate—so voters will need to vote for the ballot measure and flip a few key state legislative seats.

Williams told Jezebel that to protect or restore abortion rights at the state level, “we need to make sure we’re using the whole array of tools—certainly ballot initiatives are a component of that.” Williams noted that since the Supreme Court overturned Roe, on top of abortion, the full range of reproductive care including IVF and birth control are vulnerable to new restrictions; we’ve already seen legislators in states like Tennessee and Virginia block protections for birth control, and a court ruling makes IVF almost entirely inaccessible in Alabama for a period in February and March. “When you look at how expansive Republicans have been attacking this issue, from abortion bans and contraceptives to doctors not being able to practice freely—this is much broader than just an abortion ban,” Williams said. “That’s why the legislature is so important in this context.”

In the summer of 2022, Kansas famously became the first state to overcome widespread anti-abortion misinformation and voter suppression efforts to pass an abortion rights ballot measure after Dobbs. The state has stood as a key abortion rights stronghold in the Midwest, but the Republican-controlled legislature has continued to introduce and pass an onslaught of anti-abortion bills, including a bill attempting to push fetal personhood by imposing a “child tax credit” for embryos. Kansas is just another example of where abortion ballot measures aren’t a cure-all for protecting bodily autonomy. In addition to state legislatures, there are also gubernatorial races: “You’ll see states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, where anti-abortion state Houses pass anti-abortion bills or abortion bans, that a Democratic governor’s veto is a key line of defense,” Williams said.

As abortion rights organizers in states across the country scramble to get abortion-related measures on the ballot, Williams stressed that “there are real opportunities to build foundations toward long-term protections for abortion.” That requires an understanding that “ballot measures and state legislative races—it all goes together.”

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