Democrat Nan Whaley wants to protect abortion access in the Ohio Constitution. That is a big lift.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nan Whaley wants to sidestep Ohio's GOP politicians and put abortion access on the ballot as early as 2023.
The idea is appealing to abortion rights advocates because Ohio's GOP-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. Mike DeWine are committed to banning the procedure.
"We know that Mike DeWine and the extremists in the Legislature are going to stop at nothing when it comes to completely banning abortion," Whaley told reporters Wednesday.
But the road to the ballot is costly, cumbersome and comes with no guarantee of success. Statewide efforts to amend the Ohio Constitution require millions of dollars, paid signature collectors and a coalition of supporters with deep pockets. A 2015 constitutional ballot issue to legalize marijuana spent more than $35 million.
Would it make the ballot?
To make the ballot, backers would need to collect signatures from 10% of electors in the last governor's race. That number is currently 442,958 valid signatures from at least 44 of Ohio's 88 counties, but it will change after the 2022 election.
The process isn't quick.
"I do know the possibility is being discussed," said attorney Jessie Hill, who has sued Ohio to restore abortion access. "But a ballot initiative is a lengthy and expensive process, so those are real barriers, especially for immediate action."
It's already too late to make the 2022 ballot, and Whaley wants to focus on unseating DeWine first. She contends that having the backing of the sitting governor would mean more anyway.
"I want voters to know that when I'm governor, I will be fighting for abortion rights even if that means going directly to voters with a ballot initiative," she said.
Ohio's abortion clinics filed a lawsuit at the Ohio Supreme Court that same day to allow abortions up to 22 weeks after a pregnant person's last period – the state's law before the U.S. Supreme Court's decision came Friday. Attorneys argued that the Ohio Constitution protects access to abortions.
Still, Whaley says that logic doesn't conflict with her proposal to protect abortion access in the state constitution. "We need to be pursuing every single avenue to protect women's rights," she said.
Would it pass?
Despite the hurdles, abortion rights advocates could push for a ballot initiative as soon as next year. But would it pass?
About 53% of Ohioans polled by USA TODAY Network Ohio/Suffolk University in late May said they wanted to protect abortion rights here. Another 39% wanted the Ohio Legislature to restrict access to the procedure. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
The partisan divide was stark: 85% of Democrats backed abortion rights compared to 21% of Republicans.
But Whaley said past polling was all hypothetical. After Friday's decision, women of all political backgrounds are realizing the impact of Ohio's restrictive abortion policies.
"I do think more and more women will say this isn't making any sense," Whaley said. "I believe firmly that this is a pro-choice state."
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Language also matters. Whaley said she would support an amendment to return Ohio to the standard set in Roe v. Wade, which permits abortions up until viability. But Ohio Right to Life President Mike Gonidakis said abortion advocates like Planned Parenthood would push for a more extreme measure.
He welcomes the ballot battle. "We believe that we would easily win and settle it once and for all."
Akron Beacon Journal reporter Doug Livingston contributed to this article.
Jessie Balmert is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Akron Beacon Journal, Cincinnati Enquirer, Columbus Dispatch and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.
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