HomePoliticsAbortion access won when it was on the ballot. That is...

Abortion access won when it was on the ballot. That is not an option for half of the states

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) – Tucked away in the West Virginia Statehouse is a copy of a petition to lawmakers with a simple request: Let voters decide whether to restore legal access to abortion.

The request has been ignored by Republican lawmakers who hold a supermajority in the Legislature and banned abortions in the state in 2022, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a constitutional right to the procedure.

The petition, with more than 2,500 signatures, is essentially meaningless given the current makeup of the Legislature. But it illustrates the frustratingly limited options millions of Americans face in trying to restore abortion rights as the country marks the two-year anniversary since the Supreme Court’s ruling.

West Virginia is one of 25 states that do not allow citizen initiatives or constitutional amendments on a statewide ballot measure, a path of direct democracy that has allowed voters to bypass their legislatures and ban abortion and other reproductive rights in a number of states over the past two years. year.

Republicans there have repeatedly rejected the idea of ​​putting a measure to promote abortion rights before voters, which in West Virginia is a step only lawmakers can take.

“It makes you wonder what they’re so afraid of,” says Democratic Del. Kayla Young, one of only sixteen women in the West Virginia Legislature. “If they feel so strongly that this is what people believe, then prove it.”

The court’s ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade was hailed by abortion opponents as a decision that returned the issue to the states. Former President Donald Trump, who named three of the justices who overturned Roe, has repeatedly claimed that “the people” are now the ones who decide abortion access.

“The people decide,” he said during a recent interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity. “And in many ways it is beautiful to watch.”

But that doesn’t apply everywhere. In states that allow the citizen’s initiative and where access to abortion has been discussed, voters have resoundingly affirmed the right to abortion.

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Voters in seven states, including conservative states like Kentucky, Montana and Ohio, have either protected abortion rights or rejected attempts to restrict them in statewide ballot measures over the past two years. Reproductive rights advocates are trying to put citizen initiatives to the vote in several states this year.

But in about half the states, voters do not have a direct vote.

This is especially true for residents of the South. Republican-controlled legislatures, many of which have been heavily pressured to give the Republican Party disproportionate power, have passed some of the strictest abortion bans since the Supreme Court ruling while shunning efforts to expand direct democracy.

States began adopting the initiative process more than a century ago during the Progressive Era, giving citizens a way to make or repeal laws through a direct vote of the people. Between 1898 and 1918, almost twenty states adopted the citizens’ initiative. Since then, only five states have done so.

“It was a different time,” said John Matsusaka, a professor of business and law at the University of Southern California. “There was a political movement across the country of people trying to do what they saw as good governance.”

Some lawmakers argue that citizen initiatives circumvent the important checks and balances provided by the legislative process. In Tennessee, where Republicans have gerrymandered legislative districts to give them a supermajority in the state House, House Majority Leader William Lamberth likened voting measures to polls rather than what he described as the Legislature’s strict control over complicated policymaking.

“Every year we evaluate the accounts,” he says.

As in West Virginia, abortion rights advocates and Democratic lawmakers in a handful of states have asked Republican-controlled legislatures to put the abortion issue directly to voters, a tactic that has not worked anywhere where the Republican Party has a majority.

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“What this means is you’re going to say, ‘Hey Legislature, would you give up some of your power? Would you give up your monopoly on policymaking?” said Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego. “You need political momentum and then the process has to work together.”

In South Carolina, which bans nearly all abortions, a Democratic-backed resolution to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot this year has never been heard. Attempts to tie the proposal to other pieces of legislation were quickly halted by Republicans.

“If you believe you are doing the right thing for all the people of South Carolina – men, women and babies – you should have no problem putting this before the people,” said Democratic Senator Margie Bright Matthews, claiming that Republicans afraid they would do that. lose if the issue went directly to the voters.

In Georgia, Democratic Rep. Shea Roberts said she regularly fields questions from her constituents asking how they can get involved in a citizen-led ballot initiative. Interest exploded after Kansas voters rejected an anti-abortion measure from the Legislature in 2022 and was reignited last fall after Ohio voters overwhelmingly passed an amendment codifying abortion rights in the state Constitution.

But as she has introduced legislation to create a citizen initiative process in Georgia, efforts within the Republican-controlled Legislature have been ignored.

“Voters continually ask us why we can’t do this, and we continually explain that this is not possible under our current Constitution,” Roberts said. “If almost half the states have this process, why wouldn’t Georgians do it?”

The contrast is clearly visible in two presidential swing states. Michigan voters used a citizen initiative to enshrine abortion rights in their state constitution in 2022. Voters in neighboring Wisconsin don’t have that option.

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Instead, Wisconsin Democrats, with a new liberal majority on the state Supreme Court, are working to undo Republican-drafted legislative plans that are among the most gerrymandered in the country, hoping to ultimately overturn the Legislature turn.

Analiese Eicher, director of communications at Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin, said a citizen-led voting process would have been particularly valuable to her cause.

“We need to have legislators who represent their constituents,” she said. “And if that’s not the case, there has to be another option.”

In West Virginia, Steve Williams acknowledges that the petition he led did not change minds within the legislature.

But the Democratic mayor of Huntington, a longtime candidate for governor, said he thinks Republicans have underestimated how strongly voters believe in restoring some form of access to abortion.

Republican leaders have pointed to a 2018 vote in which just under 52% of voters supported a constitutional amendment that said there is no right to access abortion in the state. But Williams said the vote also had to do with state funding of abortion, which someone could oppose without completely eliminating access.

The vote was close, voter participation was low and it came before the Supreme Court decision that struck down a nationwide right to abortion. Williams said West Virginia women were not confronted with the reality of a near-total ban.

“Let’s face it: life in 2024 is very different for women than it was in 2018,” he said.


Associated Press writer Jeffrey Collins contributed to this report from Columbia, South Carolina. Kruesi reported from Nashville, Tennessee, and Fernando from Chicago.


The Associated Press receives support from several private foundations to improve its explanatory reporting on elections and democracy. See more about AP’s democracy initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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