Not just Trump: The Ohio abortion vote exposes the bitterness fueling the GOP war on democracy

Republicans want to impose their policies on unwilling voters, just like they'll force childbirth on women

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published August 9, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

JD Vance | Voting booths (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
JD Vance | Voting booths (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

For decades, Republicans had bamboozled the press into believing that the country was "bitterly divided" over abortion. Mainstream media misled Americans into believing that this was practically a 50/50 issue nationally and that abortion rights were deeply unpopular in the red states. Responsible pollsters kept trying to correct the narrative, pointing out that strong majorities of Americans believed it should be a right. But Republicans and their handmaidens in the "both sides"-obsessed press kept relying on shoddier polls that used ambiguous or misleading language to exaggerate the opposition to abortion. Republicans started to believe their own B.S., convincing themselves that the public, at least in red states, would be fine with abortion bans. 

Well, ever since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, bringing a flood of state-level abortion bans, both Republicans and the press have quickly learned what the better pollsters had been trying to tell them: Americans do not like abortion bans. In every state where abortion rights have been put on the ballot, no matter how red, voters have turned out to protect their rights. As many pro-choicers have been saying for years, people may vaguely say they're "against" abortion when the idea is abstract, but they sure as hell want the keep the option open in case they're the ones facing an unwanted pregnancy. 

The press often treats the struggle over abortion rights and the struggle over voting rights as two discrete issues, but in ways large and small, they're the same issue.

Instead of acceding to this reality, however, Republican leaders have decided that they will do whatever it takes to force abortion bans on resistant populations, even if the cost is dismantling democracy and grinding unrelated government functions to a halt. So it was in Ohio, when it became clear that pro-choice activists had already cleared the various high bars to put abortion rights on the ballot in November. The effort resulted in nearly half a million petition signatures in 55 counties, well above the number needed to get a proposed constitutional amendment protecting abortion rights before voters this fall. 

Republicans know they can't win if it's up to the voters to decide. So they aimed to take that right away, scheduling another ballot initiative in August to raise the bar from a simple majority to 60% for future ballot initiatives to pass. By scheduling the vote in August and making it about election technicalities, Republicans hoped to trick voters into voting against abortion rights. In a sign of how much voters are both aware of the stakes and ready to fight, however, it appears the GOP effort has yet again failed. Astonishingly, more than 3 millions voters turned out, a reminder that abortion rights aren't just popular, but a highly motivating issue for voters. 

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The GOP is the party of Donald Trump, so it will not surprise readers to learn that Republican talking points around this ballot initiative were dishonest in every conceivable way. Of course, they denied Issue 1, the ballot initiative on the ballot Tuesday, was about abortion. Instead, the Republican arguments were pure gaslighting, pretending that the only way to protect voter rights is to take away voter rights. Republican Sen. J.D. Vance coughed that bit of incoherence up Tuesday, on Twitter (which I refuse to call "X"). 

This is, of course, a flat out lie.

Letting Ohio voters vote on the state's Constitution is not about "out of state special interests." But even that understates the dishonesty on display by Vance here, because it's an objective fact that the "out of state special interests" trying to manipulate this situation were mostly on the anti-choice side. As the Washington Post reported, "The coalition supporting the measure, called Protect Our Constitution, is funded almost entirely by billionaire Illinois business owner Richard Uihlein, who contributed $4 million of the campaign's $4.8 million." Meanwhile, the largest in-state contribution behind Issue 1 came from the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, and was only $150,000. 

Why, you might ask, was the Ohio Chamber of Commerce involved? Part of the reason is that, despite the bland-sounding name, the group is a far-right organization and has been for decades. But mostly it's because the group saw Issue 1 as a way to insulate corporate power from any kind of public accountability, by making it harder for voters to pass laws protecting labor rights, the environment, or increasing taxes that cut into corporate profits. 

Indeed, it takes very little digging to see how the anti-democratic impulses behind this ballot initiative and the anti-abortion politics fueling it are so intertwined as to be inseparable. Uihlein isn't footing the bill for Issue 1 just because he's hostile to reproductive rights. He's hostile to voters having the right to choose their own leaders and is a cheerleader for Trump's efforts to overthrow democracy. As the Ohio Capital Journal reported in May:

Last July, the Chicago Tribune reported that he was a major contributor to the "March to Save America" rally that preceded the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. The younger Uihlein also has given nearly $8 million since 2016 to the Tea Party Patriots, another group that was instrumental in putting on the Jan. 6 rally.

Uihlein has continued to support assaults on American democracy since. He gave support to Doug Mastriano, last year's failed gubernatorial candidate from Pennsylvania who attended the Jan. 6 rally and who falsely claimed the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump. Uihlein also supported Jim Marchant, an election denier and conspiracy theorist who lost his 2022 bid to become Nevada's top elections official.

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The press often treats the struggle over abortion rights and the struggle over voting rights as two discrete issues, but in ways large and small, they're the same issue. There's the 10,000-foot view, where both are ultimately a question over autonomy and self-governance. Republicans don't believe ordinary people should be allowed choices, whether it's over the choice to reproduce or a choice at the ballot box. It's also psychological. Conservative bitterness over abortion rights has come to justify their assaults on democracy. But, as these follow-the-money patterns show, it's also that anti-democratic forces exploit the abortion issue to drum up support for anti-democratic initiatives that end up having negative impacts on every aspect of life, from worker rights to environmental regulation. 

What is remarkable about the abortion issue is how much it crystallizes voter attention on the larger issues of democracy. Even though the wording of Issue 1 was deliberately banal, voters knew full well what the result would be: Abortion bans, overriding the clear will of voters. So they turned out in astounding numbers, striking down a ballot initiative that would not just undermine abortion rights, but help dismantle the ability of voters to control their own governance. Turns out the people can and will rally for their rights. Sadly, that just means Republicans will get angrier and more determined to block the democratic process. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Commentary Issue 1 Jd Vance Ohio Abortion Ballot Richard Uihlein