When the Supreme Court voted in June to overturn Roe v. Wade, all eyes turned to the states. While states such as California and New York have affirmed the right to an abortion, many others have banned the practice and, as a result, put many women in harm’s way.
Republicans argue that turning abortion back to the states is more democratic, as Roe v. Wade was decided by the United States Supreme Court, an unelected body. But the Republican supermajorities are not acting in accordance with the will of the people by banning abortion, as polling shows that 61% of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
The reality is that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, and without a 60-vote majority in the Senate or the abolition of the filibuster, there’s nothing Democrats can do to protect abortion at the federal level. But states can protect, and have protected, abortion rights through ballot initiatives and constitutional amendments.
I want to emphasize that turning to the states is neither a perfect solution, nor a foolproof one. States have radically different laws regarding ballot measures. California, for example, has seven measures on the 2022 ballot, while Michigan has only one. There is also the risk of this strategy backfiring, as states could vote to abolish abortion. But considering current federal law (or lack thereof) regarding abortion, placing initiatives or constitutional amendments on the ballot is one way to keep abortion legal in states.
One important reason that a state-based approach is a strategy that Democrats should embrace is that, as noted above, abortion is supported by a majority of Americans. While 61% of Americans believe abortion should remain legal in all or most cases, 73% of Americans believe abortion should be legal in cases of health of the mother, and 69% believe it should be legal in the case of rape or incest, the same poll shows. As pregnant women in states with abortion bans report difficulty accessing a medically necessary abortion, many Republicans are pushing for laws that do not include rape and incest exceptions. If abortion votes are put before the people of a state, it is likely that voters will enact abortion laws that ensure access to abortions in these cases.
In addition to the unpopularity of total abortion bans, putting abortion rights directly before the people would eliminate the problem of running candidates who are pro-choice. In today’s political climate, it is generally true that Democratic candidates support abortion rights, while Republicans want to restrict abortion. Yet Republican voters are often more supportive of abortion rights than Republican candidates.
According to the Pew Research Center, 38% of Republicans support abortion access, but, based on their voting habits, it seems that these people care about other issues that are important to them, such as cutting taxes, supporting gun rights or creating a strong southern border. People who support such policies are unlikely to vote for the candidates who support abortion access: Democrats. Putting ballot initiatives directly before voters eliminates the problem of getting people to vote for candidates who support other policies they don’t agree with.
The state of Kansas gives an example of this idea in action. In August, Kansans voted against removing abortion rights from the state’s constitution by a whopping 18 percentage points, 59 to 41. Kansas is a red state; former President Donald Trump won Kansas by about 15%, meaning that a fair number of Trump supporters voted in support of this ballot initiative.
Other conservative states would also vote to back abortion rights, according to a New York Times analysis. For example, voters in Nebraska, Missouri and Florida would support abortion rights in a ballot initiative similar to that in Kansas, the NYT estimates. Not only would expanding abortion access in such states help the women in these states, but it would also mean that women who live in neighboring states that might have abortion bans wouldn’t have to travel as far to receive an abortion.
This state-based strategy would require national Democratic leaders to listen to their colleagues in state governments. Because each state has a different system for placing initiatives or constitutional amendments on the ballot, pro-choice advocates in each state would have to run their own campaigns. But the localized effort will be worth it if abortion access is protected in states where it otherwise would not be. In November, Democrats will see if the strategy works; abortion is on the ballot in five states, including Michigan and Kentucky — which are not solid blue states.
Placing abortion initiatives on the ballot is a necessary strategy that could lead to the expansion of abortion rights in states where it may not have been possible to vote in a sizable number of pro-choice officials. While this is an imperfect solution, it is one that could allow more Americans to make their own reproductive choices without relying on the federal government.
Lydia Storella is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.