Ohio Republicans use taxpayer funds to boost "absolutely false" anti-abortion claims ahead of vote

GOP promotes misinformation "explicitly masquerading as fact" about Issue 1 — which would protect abortion rights

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Staff Writer

Published November 6, 2023 5:30AM (EST)

An activist seen holding a placard that says protect safe, legal abortion during the protest. (Megan Jelinger/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
An activist seen holding a placard that says protect safe, legal abortion during the protest. (Megan Jelinger/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Reproductive rights groups are sounding the alarm over confusing ballot language and rampant anti-abortion misinformation surrounding Ohio's Issue 1 — a proposed amendment that would enshrine the right to an abortion in the Buckeye State's Constitution.

Ohio voters will flock to polling places on Tuesday to weigh in on an array of state and local issues, including mayoral and school board races and a ballot question to legalize recreational marijuana. But none of the issues Ohioans will encounter has been more contentious — and more nationally anticipated — than Issue 1.

Efforts of abortion rights advocates and abortion opponents have ramped up in the days leading up to the election. Two of the key groups behind the advertisement messaging — Protect Women Ohio, an anti-abortion group that describes itself as a "coalition of concerned family and life leaders, parents, health and medical experts, and faith leaders" and Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights, a coalition of reproductive health, rights and justice organizations — uploading a slate of new ads boosting their stance to their respective YouTube channels Thursday. 

"The thing that's new about what we're seeing here is that this is just happening very clearly on a government taxpayer-funded website."

But as Ohioans prepare for the culmination of the monumental vote, abortion rights proponents worry that the confusion constituents have around the issue, generated from widespread misinformation peddled by anti-abortion groups and Republicans about what the amendment would do as well as misleading ballot language, will hamper its success. 

"I get very worried. How do you have a democracy that is functional with so much misinformation?" Catherine Turcer, the executive director of government accountability group Common Cause Ohio, which endorsed Issue 1, told Salon. "Because we need good information to make decisions, and the misinformation doesn't just cloud the decision-making process, it doesn't just leave people with true misunderstandings. It can also completely turn off people so that they decide to opt out."

Turcer said canvassers reported that constituents have expressed confusion about the moniker "Issue 1" in the Nov. 7 election, with many mistaking it for the ballot initiative of the same name in Ohio's Aug. 8 special election. That initiative, which was backed by Republican opponents of abortion and would have raised the threshold to pass constitutional amendments, like the present Issue 1, to 60 percent from a simple majority, failed 43 percent to 57 percent.  

Ohioans' fears over false claims that the amendment allows for unmitigated access to abortion care throughout a person's pregnancy have also come to the fore, according to Jen Miller, the executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, a nonpartisan election education and voting rights group that has not declared a stance on Issue 1. But prospective voters have expressed the most concern over the question of parental rights, both advocates noted, which Issue 1 opponents claim the amendment calls into question. 

Those misconceptions and questions largely echo the rhetoric coloring ads from Protect Women Ohio, which has produced a slew of clips warning that, if successful, the amendment will eliminate the requirement for a parent's consent in making decisions on whether their child can obtain an abortion, remove health and safety protections for birthing people, and open the floodgates on late-term abortions.

A mid-October ad from the organization that garnered significant pushback from abortion rights proponents featured Republican Gov. Mike DeWine and first lady Fran DeWine encouraging voters to vote against Issue 1 based on claims that it would "allow an abortion at any time during a pregnancy" and "deny parents the right to be involved when their daughter is making the most important decision of her life."

"I know Ohioans are divided on the issues of abortion, but whether you're pro-life or pro-choice, Issue 1 is just not right for Ohioans," the governor said in the clip, with his wife adding that the proposed amendment "just goes too far."

In actuality, the amendment would not have any bearing on parental consent rights if put into effect, as constitutional law experts have declared in fact-checks. And the proposed amendment would, "in practical terms, go back to how abortion worked under Roe v. Wade," allowing the state to prohibit abortion care after viability at about 22-24 weeks unless a patient's life or health is at risk, added Miller, whose organization has been combatting misinformation through public webinars with neutral legal and medical experts and disseminating Issue 1 fact cards in Ohio neighborhoods.

That is the status quo in Ohio: abortions are legal up to 22 weeks pending a decision from the state's right-wing Supreme Court on a six-week ban that was passed by Republicans in 2019 and then blocked by an appellate court following Roe's reversal last year. It's likely, however, that if Tuesday's vote fails, the state Supreme Court will reinstate the nearly exception-less ban, also known as the Heartbeat Law, Miller told Salon.

Misinformation about hot-button issues like Issue 1's potential effects on Ohio's legal doctrine — and potential implications on Ohioans' moral standings — is not all that uncommon, especially in the final days ahead of the vote, according to University of California Davis law professor Mary Ziegler. Most significant, however, is that some of the misinformation is coming directly from an official government website, she said.

The Ohio Senate launched its "On The Record" blog in September, describing the page, the only one linked under the official site's "News" tab, as the chamber's own "online newsroom" publishing "the views the news excludes," The Associated Press first reported. The blog, which promises to "deliver the real story directly to the people" by way of "editorials, statements on policies, and legislative updates," features attacks of Ohio news sources, opinion column-style articles from Republican state senators and other content largely produced by the Senate majority's communications personnel. 

In the weeks leading up to the election, "On The Record" has focused its coverage on denouncing Issue 1, publishing articles from state senators that repeat the claims of abortion access outlined in the Protect Women Ohio ad alongside others. One claims the amendment would allow for "the dismemberment of fully conscious children," referring to a procedure that the U.S. government banned in 2003, while another decontextualizes the high rates of abortion among Black women to further a narrative that the rate is fueled by an "evil" and "predatory" abortion industry.

The webpage was still the only link available under the "News" tab for the Ohio Senate as of Friday.

"This is particularly interesting because the way they're presenting information is explicitly masquerading as fact," Laura Manley, the executive director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, told Salon, pointing to the blog's claim that it will tell readers "the real story" that the mainstream media will not.

"The tactic or the approach of being able to completely engage in strategy of distrust of anyone but you is clearly what's happening here. And we saw politicians in previous presidential elections do this quite successfully," she continued, adding: "The thing that's new about what we're seeing here is that this is just happening very clearly on a government taxpayer-funded website."

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The website's launch came shortly after the Ohio Ballot Board, led by Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose, created ballot language for Issue 1 that abortion advocates have said is misleading. The certified language swaps the amendment's proposed "fetus" with the phrase "unborn child" on the ballot and says the initiative would, per the ACLU of Ohio, "'always allow' abortion care 'at any stage of pregnancy, regardless of viability,' if the treating physician finds it necessary to protect health."

"Not only is this phrasing confusing and inflammatory, but it also suggests that the physician could override the pregnant patient’s wishes," ACLU communications strategist Sheila Smith writes. "This is absolutely false."

While the Secretary of State's office provides Ohioans willing to navigate its website with a file presenting the ballot language alongside the official amendment text, only the certified language will appear on the ballot.

The League of Women Voters Ohio and Common Cause Ohio have worked to combat the misinformation given the high stakes surrounding abortion and reproductive care in the state.

"If Issue 1 does not pass, laws around abortion and reproductive health in Ohio would be continued to be made by an extremely gerrymandered legislature that is out of touch with the people of Ohio," Miller told Salon. 

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As it stands, in addition to codifying abortion into the Ohio Constitution, the amendment would ensure protections for access to contraception, miscarriage care and fertility treatments — provisions that the ballot language excludes and that "On The Record" articles link to false and transphobic claims

What effect the misinformation has on voters ahead of the election is "hard to tell," Ziegler told Salon. "I think to some degree voters are used to misinformation. At this point, I think one of the reasons the 2016 election was such a bellwether in some ways was because the degree of misinformation was so much more significant than what we've been used to that more voters were affected by it."

"The other irony is that a lot of voters who are susceptible to misinformation are also voters who don't trust the government," she adds. 

Learning of the misinformation from official sources like that found on the Senate's site, Manley explains, will likely cause constituents' overall trust in state institutions and their representatives to further decline and lead to a ripple effect in the future. 

But Tuesday's bellwether vote in Ohio is also a "litmus test" for the rest of the nation, marking one of the first examples of residents voting on whether to declare they want to have a right to an abortion — as opposed to striking down measures to undo existing rights or rejecting efforts to deny the right to abortion — in a staunchly Republican state, Ziegler notes. 

Ohioans aren't taking the vote lightly. According to the Secretary of State's office, more than 200,000 people already cast their votes early and around 110,000 had mailed in absentee ballots by last Monday, per The Columbus Dispatch.

Turcer is hopeful that Ohioans will be able to "suss out the misinformation and the power grab" come Tuesday as they did in voting down August's Issue 1. An Ohio Northern University poll from two weeks ago, which found majority support for the latest proposed amendment with 52 percent of voters still supporting issue 1 based on the certified ballot language and 68 percent supporting it as it was originally worded, indicates that some may be on that path. 

"One of the things that I think is gonna make a real difference is who shows up at the polls during early votes, who shows up at the polls on Election Day," Turcer told Salon. "I think at the end of the day, Issue 1 will be determined by who shows up to vote."

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Tatyana Tandanpolie is a staff writer at Salon. Born and raised in central Ohio, she moved to New York City in 2018 to pursue degrees in Journalism and Africana Studies at New York University. She is currently based in her home state and has previously written for local Columbus publications, including Columbus Monthly, CityScene Magazine and The Columbus Dispatch.

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