HomePoliticsGov. J.B. Pritzker is backing abortion rights ballot measures across nation, but...

Gov. J.B. Pritzker is backing abortion rights ballot measures across nation, but little on the horizon in Illinois

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker is expending political and financial capital around the country — from Ohio to Nevada — on ballot measures to enshrine abortion protections in state constitutions. But similar efforts in Illinois remain in limbo.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court nearly two years ago struck down the federal right to abortion, reproductive health care has proved a potent political issue for Democrats, credited with helping prevent a predicted “red wave” nationally in 2022 and, in Illinois, cemented the party’s dominance in the statehouse.

Abortion rights also has become a platform issue for Pritzker. The second-term governor and billionaire Hyatt Hotels heir has increasingly looked to raise his national profile as he eyes a potential future White House run — particularly through the dark money group he launched last fall, Think Big America.

Just days after delivering a State of the State address in Springfield last week during which he made only passing references to abortion, Pritzker flew to Nevada over the weekend to help kick off a petition push to get a reproductive rights amendment referendum on the November ballot in a state that could prove key to President Joe Biden’s reelection effort.

“I know some of you are wondering why the governor of Illinois is here today,” a raspy-voiced Pritzker told a crowd of about 100 people Saturday at a community college outside Las Vegas. “I came here today because what you’re doing is so important, not just for the future of Nevada but the future of the entire nation.

“Together, you — we — are protecting access to health care and preventing MAGA extremists from passing an abortion ban,” said Pritzker, a key Biden surrogate, referring to Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan and reports that Trump likes the idea of a 16-week national abortion ban with some exceptions.

Speaking over shouts of “murderer” from anti-abortion protesters who had disrupted the event, Pritzker recounted for the Nevada crowd a story well-known in Illinois about how his mother’s activism for abortion rights in the 1970s inspired his lifelong dedication to the issue. It propelled him to the governor’s office and, ultimately, led to the creation of a national political organization designed to boost the cause, he said.

Back home, though, a state constitutional amendment on abortion rights doesn’t appear to be on this election year’s agenda for the Democratic-controlled Illinois legislature — even though Pritzker last year declared in his second inaugural address that “the right to privacy and bodily autonomy demand that we establish a constitutional protection for reproductive rights in Illinois.”

Supporters point to a variety of reasons for the slower pace here, including the strength of the state’s existing law, the pro-abortion rights supermajorities in the General Assembly and on the Illinois Supreme Court, the need to channel resources to states where access is under greater threat, and the ongoing discussions about whether to expand the constitutional question to include other forms of health care, such as gender-affirming treatments.

“It’s more important that we do it correctly than that we do it quickly,” Senate President Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat, said in January, emphasizing the need “to be very sure … we are protecting the broad collection of rights that need to be protected.”

As conversations continue in Springfield, it leaves Pritzker’s Think Big America free to spend its time and money outside Illinois’ borders.

As an issue-advocacy organization, Think Big America isn’t required to disclose its donors but the group’s leadership says the governor is the sole contributor. Building off its successes last year in helping pass an amendment referendum in Ohio and secure Democratic control of the Virginia legislature, Think Big America has turned its attention to ballot measures in the presidential battleground states of Nevada and Arizona, while weighing whether to get involved in Montana and Florida.

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There are several other states pursuing referendums this year where Think Big has yet to get involved. The issue already is on the ballot in Maryland and in New York, where voters will cast ballots in November on a broadly worded amendment that seeks to protect both abortion and gender-affirming care by expanding the state constitution’s anti-discrimination protections to include “gender identity, gender expression, pregnancy, pregnancy outcomes, and reproductive healthcare and autonomy.”

In Nevada, Pritzker’s group has given $1 million to Nevadans for Reproductive Freedom, the main group advocating for the ballot measure. That’s more than half of the $1.8 million the group reported raising last year, according to Nevada campaign finance records.

Both individually and through Think Big, Pritzker last year poured $1 million into the Ohio effort and $250,000 into Virginia legislative races. This year, his group has also contributed $250,000 to support the proposed Arizona ballot initiative.

Pritzker’s group does more than cut checks, though. It provides staffing, logistical support and strategic advice, depending on the needs in any given state.

“There’s a number of ways that when people come in with a big investment that they behave,” said Kellie Copeland, executive director of Pro-Choice Ohio. “Some of them come in and really want to bigfoot everything, and they’re like, ‘We’re the experts. We’re going to come in and tell you local peons what to do.’ That was not the case at all with Pritzker and his team.”

For the Nevada effort, Think Big helped hire political operative Tova Yampolsky, a veteran of pro-abortion rights political action committee EMILY’S List, to run the campaign for Nevadans for Reproductive Freedom and also brought on Brendan Summers, who worked on presidential campaigns for Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, as a senior adviser.

The initial hurdle is for supporters to gather the more than 102,000 petition signatures needed to get the question on the November ballot, including nearly 26,000 from each of the state’s four congressional districts.

If the requisite signatures are gathered by the June 26 deadline, voters would have to approve the amendment by a simple majority in November and then again in 2026 for it to become part of the Nevada state constitution.

While abortion rights already are protected in state law through 24 weeks of pregnancy via a 1990 ballot initiative, supporters say that constitutional protections are needed in the current landscape.

The proposed amendment would guarantee “all individuals … a fundamental right to abortion performed or administered by a qualified health care practitioner until fetal viability, or when needed to protect the life or health of the pregnant patient.”

“With the changing abortion access nationally after Roe v. Wade, we believe now is the time to enshrine those protections for abortion in the state constitution,” Yampolsky said. “And we have seen anti-abortion politicians talking about introducing a national abortion ban in Congress. And that just reinforces the importance of taking action here in Nevada to strengthen the protections that we have in the state.”

Beyond any legislation that might pass in Washington, D.C., to ban abortion nationally, repealing the current protections in Nevada would require more than a takeover of the state legislature by anti-abortion Republican lawmakers, said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

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Because the state’s protections were put in place through a citizen-driven ballot initiative, Damore said, rescinding them would require voter approval through another ballot measure, a nearly insurmountable feat in the current environment.

“It’s more about the politics than the policy here,” he said of the referendum push.

One of the key political considerations for getting the referendum question placed on this November’s ballot: driving turnout among Democratic voters — “voters who may not be all that excited about Biden”— in a state the president won by just 33,596 votes four years ago, Damore said.

One of Nevada’s Senate seats also is on the ballot in November, with first-term Democrat Jacky Rosen seeking reelection as her party vies to maintain control of the chamber.

Pritzker senior political adviser Mike Ollen, who ran the governor’s reelection campaign and leads day-to-operations for Think Big America, acknowledged the broader political calculations behind the group’s state-by-state efforts.

“If Donald Trump becomes president, if we lose the Senate and the House, Republicans have said very overtly that they will pursue a national abortion ban,” Ollen said. “So certainly our initiatives on the ground are a very, very important piece of what we do.

“But being in states like Nevada and Arizona, where we have pro-choice candidates running for Senate, where we have electoral votes that matter in Nevada and Arizona for the president, that is all part of a larger defensive play to make sure that we never see a national abortion ban come to any president’s desk.”

In deep-blue Illinois, which will host the Democratic National Convention at which Biden is expected to accept his party’s nomination for a second term, there’s virtually no danger of the president losing the state’s 19 electoral votes.

Neither of the state’s U.S. senators are up for reelection, nor is any other statewide office. But in two years, Pritzker could be running for a third term, and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin’s seat also will be up, which could give Democrats an incentive to put an abortion question before voters in 2026 to help drive up turnout in a year when the presidency isn’t on the ballot.

“If I were advising Democrats, I might tell them to hold off till 2026, that it’s not critical in 2024 to drive turnout in Illinois,” said Connie Mixon, a political science professor at Elmhurst University. “Spend your time and your resources in these key swing states.”

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy of Chicago, who leads abortion-related negotiations for Democrats in the Illinois House, said that while she believes a constitutional amendment in Illinois is necessary in the long term, the need is more urgent in other states.

Protecting access to abortion in other states also could help ease the burden on Illinois providers, who’ve been swamped with out-of-state patients seeking care as restrictions elsewhere go into place, Cassidy said.

“This pace isn’t sustainable. We need more states to come online,” Cassidy said. “So I’m really glad the governor is putting his weight and effort and resources behind getting other states on the ballot and across the finish line. Because the resources that it takes to pass a statewide ballot initiative are huge.”

When the time comes for Illinois, Cassidy said, she wants to see an amendment that addresses protections for both reproductive health care and gender-affirming care, which also is facing an onslaught of restrictions in GOP-led states.

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“If someone were to present a (reproductive health)-only constitutional amendment, I will be vehemently opposed to it,” she said.

Harmon, the Senate president, likewise said he believes the state should protect gender-affirming health care.

Whether that should be done through a single ballot question or separately is “an ongoing discussion,” he said through a spokesman.

The governor’s office didn’t answer directly when asked if Pritzker would support an amendment dealing with both issues. While his signature wouldn’t be needed to place a question on the ballot, Pritzker’s support would be instrumental in selling it to voters.

On the political side, Ollen said Think Big America would be “be happy to support initiatives like that” in Illinois or elsewhere, if it could pass legal muster.

Advocates for both reproductive rights and the LGBTQ community, meanwhile, expressed their support for extending state constitutional protections to both forms of health care, while also agreeing that Illinois can take a more deliberative approach because of the strength of existing laws.

“There are people who are dying in other states or being forced to travel thousands of miles at great cost to receive reproductive health care, and so I’m OK waiting our turn right now,” said Sarah Garza Resnick, CEO of the pro-abortion rights political committee Personal PAC. “I think that that is the responsible thing for us to do.”

When the time is right, Illinois needs to address both forms of health care, because whether or not supporters link the two, opponents will, said Brian Johnson, CEO of LGBTQ rights group Equality Illinois. He pointed to opposition campaigns in Ohio and Michigan that sought to use anti-transgender messaging to attack abortion rights ballot measures.

“There is no delinking gender-affirming care from reproductive care,” Johnson said. “They are so intimately intertwined because they rely on the exact same conceptual constitutional protections of liberty, of bodily autonomy, of privacy rights.”

If lawmakers do merge the two issues, it remains to be seen whether moderate and right-leaning suburban voters who would support an abortion rights amendment would support constitutional protections for gender-affirming care.

In Illinois, a constitutional amendment requires the approval of 60% of voters who weigh in on the question or a majority of all voters who cast ballots in the election, a higher bar than in some other states.

Mary Kate Zander, executive director of Illinois Right to Life, said she thinks Democrats aren’t moving forward with a referendum this year because they don’t think they would have enough support to pass it.

“I think that if they had a referendum on abortion, it would put on the record that they don’t actually have the sweeping support for some of the extreme laws that they’ve passed that they tell people and say that they do,” Zander said.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision in June 2022 struck down the federal right to abortion, voters in seven states have cast ballots on the issue through statewide ballot measures, and each time the pro-abortion rights side has emerged victorious.

That trend shows no sign of slowing, Elmhurst University’s Mixon said.

“Abortion is being used strategically as a wedge issue to drive Democratic turnout, to drive independent turnout, specifically suburban women,” Mixon said. “More and more elections are decided in the suburbs, and these type of ballot measures can certainly boost the electorate that cares about abortion issues.”

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