Democrats seek boost from abortion ballot measures in key battlegrounds

March 30, 2024

Democrats see efforts to get abortion on the ballot in key battleground states across the country as a way to boost turnout and energize their base amid signs of low voter enthusiasm for this year’s presidential race. 

Abortion-related measures are already on the ballot in Maryland and New York — a state seen as central to both parties’ efforts to win control of the House — while similar efforts are underway in states like Arizona, Florida and Montana.

The trend comes as Democrats have racked up victories in both special elections and referendums by running on the issue, most recently flipping a state House seat in deep-red Alabama. 

“This has proven to be a winning issue for Democrats, like in Alabama last week, [in] some of the most conservative, ruby-red, deeply Republican, Trump-supporting areas,” said New York-based Democratic strategist Jon Reinish.

In the Empire State, voters will weigh in on whether to add an Equal Rights Amendment to the state constitution that would, among other things, prevent the state from implementing an abortion ban in the future. 

Abortion is already legal in New York and isn’t under imminent threat, but Democrat lawmakers pushed the effort forward amid hopes that it will bolster turnout.

New York is seen as key to who ends up controlling the lower chamber in November, given that a handful of races are pure toss-ups and Republicans were able to flip the House largely due to the inroads they made there in 2022.

“This enshrinement, these further protections … in New York, it’s very, very smart. New York is the epicenter of the race of who will control the House,” Reinish said. “And so something like this will absolutely benefit Democrats.” 

In Maryland, another blue state where abortion is legal, voters are also set to consider an amendment to add “reproductive freedom” to their state constitution. The effort is backed by a number of top Democrats in the state, including Gov. Wes Moore and state House Speaker Adrienne Jones, and it comes as the party gears up for a potentially competitive Senate race against former Gov. Larry Hogan (R).

But efforts to get abortion on the ballot are also underway in red and purple states as Democratic candidates up and down the ticket stress the threats to reproductive rights in a post-Roe country. 

“The fact is, extreme Republican House candidates won’t be able to cover up their fervently anti-abortion positions when measures to protect abortion access are on the ballot alongside their name,” said Viet Shelton, a spokesperson for the House Democrats’ campaign arm. “We’re confident voters will respond accordingly in November, helping Democrats retake the House majority.”

In Florida, which went for former President Trump in 2016 and 2020, the state Supreme Court is set to decide Monday whether a ballot measure to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution should go before voters in the fall. 

“I accept it as a given that, if the abortion measure is on the Florida ballot in November, that it will undoubtedly increase turnout of abortion rights supporters, who tend to be mostly Democrats,” said Sunshine State-based Republican strategist Justin Sayfie.

Such a measure in Florida or elsewhere would likely mean “enhanced turnout” for Democrats, Sayfie said, leaving Republican candidates to either fight the issue or focus on another, like immigration, to energize their own base. 

In Montana, the state’s Republican attorney general labeled as invalid a ballot measure to protect abortion, but the state Supreme Court earlier this month overruled the move, bringing the proposed constitutional amendment closer to the ballot. 

Although abortion is legal in Montana before fetal viability, abortion rights activists in the state want to enshrine the protections in a state with a GOP governor and GOP-controlled Legislature — and where incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester is locked in a tight fight to hold onto his seat. Tester has been quietly supportive of the effort, according to a report from Axios late last year. 

Over in Arizona, a signature drive is underway to protect abortion rights through a constitutional amendment. 

The effort “presents a great opportunity for Democrats” to win over voters and rally turnout, said Arizona-based Republican strategist Lorna Romero. 

“The last election cycle, especially here in Arizona, at least when it came to moderate Republicans and swing voters, the folks that the Republican Party is trying to court more in swing states … usually those swing voters have some pro-choice leanings,” Romero said. 

Arizona is not only holding a highly competitive Senate race — likely between Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego and Republican former gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake — but it also could prove decisive in who ends up winning the White House.

Other states that could see abortion-related ballot initiatives in November, include Colorado, South Dakota and Nevada, the latter of which is also seen as a key swing state in the presidential election.

In many of the states where the ballot initiatives need signatures to move forward, “decline to sign” efforts are underway to discourage support for the “extreme initiatives,” said Peter Northcott, a spokesperson for the National Right to Life Committee.

Organizers in several states were quick to stress that the abortion-rights ballot measures — though largely backed by Democrats — are across-the-aisle endeavors to prevent further erosion of reproductive rights. Support for legal abortion hit a new high in a recent Fox News poll, and other results have shown many Americans think the GOP is doing too much to limit the procedure. 

But the efforts come as Democrats seek to keep abortion at the forefront of their efforts to hold onto the Senate and the White House, and edge out Republicans for the House, even as many voters dread the idea of a Trump-Biden rematch. 

Republican-led states and lawmakers moved quickly to crack down on abortion after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and handed the regulation of abortion over to individual states back in 2022. The issue was seen as a major boost to Democrats during that year’s midterm elections, as the party managed to fend off an anticipated red-wave, while voters in Michigan, California and Vermont also approved measures enshrining abortion rights

Ruby-red Ohio voted last year to add abortion protections into the state constitution, with the ballot measure sparking notable early voting turnout. 

“When abortion is explicitly on the ballot … we have seen incredible surges in turnout, particularly amongst young voters, but kind of across the board,” said Ryan Stitzlein, vice president of government relations for Reproductive Freedom for All. 

“The other thing that has been clear is that, when candidates center abortion access in their campaign, that can also be just as potent with voters,” Stitzlein said. 

In an Alabama special election last week, a Democratic candidate who campaigned on reproductive rights flipped a conservative state House seat just weeks after a major ruling led to a pause on in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment.

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) in a memo after the Alabama race also pointed to Democratic Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s reelection win last year after he leaned into abortion against a Trump-backed challenger, and Democrat Tom Suozzi’s recent flip of a New York district against rival Mazi Pilip, who had clashed with him over the issue.

Voters “are saying loudly and clearly that they will keep siding with Democrats” to fend off Republican attacks on reproductive rights, DNC spokesperson Rhyan Lake told The Hill. 

While the issue might not be a silver bullet for Democrats in an election year when issues like the economy and immigration loom large, a sense of urgency about threats to reproductive rights — as red states move to impose restrictions and as the Supreme Court considers access to the abortion drug mifepristone — could be a key motivator.

President Biden has denounced the decision that overturned Roe and warned of how another Trump term could harm reproductive rights as he also courts women voters, a demographic that a recent Quinnipiac poll found favoring Trump by double-digits. House Democrats in February vowed to make abortion their top issue on this year’s campaign trail. 

“A lot of the top-of-the-ticket races aren’t energizing folks, like this rematch between Biden and Trump — it’s likely going to depress turnout,” said Kate Maeder, a Democratic strategist based in California. “And so, having a ballot measure to protect reproductive rights could theoretically be a motivating factor.”

“It’s very pragmatic,” Maeder said of the state-level ballot efforts, “while also being a tool to energize the Democratic base.”