Good, old-fashioned direct democracy.
On June 24, the Supreme Court officially released their decision to overturn Roe v. Wade – putting a sharp end to the nation’s constitutionally protected right to abortion, which existed for nearly half a century. The ruling puts abortion regulation back on states, meaning local legislatures can either ban or protect abortion rights as they and their constituents desire. While things may look bleak, you can still take action to decide how your state legislatures act: Here’s a guide on how to campaign for abortion rights in your state, whether that means putting a measure on your local ballot, or petitioning for a measure to your local legislature.
Without the constitutionally protected right to abortion, people are now looking to ballot measures to codify reproductive freedom within their state’s laws. In some states, voters can weigh in directly on abortion rights through ballot measures, which are proposed laws, amendments, or repeals that people can directly decide on through a popular vote. Typically, they end up on ballots through a process called a “ballot initiative,” which is just a fancy way of saying a state’s citizens can write up a petition for a cause. If the cause meets the needed requirements, like getting a certain number of registered voters to sign their petition, it has to be added to an upcoming election ballot.
In Michigan, advocates have gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures to petition for the Reproductive Freedom For All amendment, which would codify protections for abortion, birth control, miscarriage management, and more into the state’s constitution. If the petition is certified, the issue will be placed on the state’s ballot for the 2022 primary elections. If voters approve the amendment, Michigan would join 16 states, plus Washington, D.C., in codifying reproductive freedom in their state.
“It’s essential to recognize that the majority of American adults support the legal right to an abortion,” Gina Moore, the senior manager of Defend Direct Democracy at the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, tells Elite Daily. “That means that there are communities across the country waiting to be organized into action to defend abortion rights.”
“Michigan’s Reproductive Freedom for All campaign is an outstanding example of how that kind of mobilization can be done well,” Moore adds. “MI Reproductive Freedom for All is a citizen-initiated campaign, meaning they had to collect signatures to qualify for the ballot, and [on July 11] they submitted 753,000 signatures, which is the highest number of signatures ever submitted for a ballot initiative in the state.”
To date, there are five states across the country with abortion rights on their ballots during their upcoming 2022 state primary elections: California, Montana, Kansas, Kentucky, and Vermont. While California and Vermont are voting on whether to enshrine reproductive freedom within their state’ constitutions, Montana, Kansas, and Kentucky are voting on whether to completely ban or severely limit abortion rights for citizens.
There are three different types of ballot initiatives, per Ballotpedia – direct, indirect, and referendum. While a direct initiative goes directly to the ballot in front of the voter, an indirect initiative must filter through the state legislature to make sure it meets the needed requirements first. Most state processes for dealing with indirect initiatives are relatively straightforward: File the petition with a state official; ensure the ballot measure conforms with existing state laws and requirements; prepare the title and summary as it’ll appear on a voter’s ballot; gather signatures; and verify those signatures. From there, depending on what state you’re in, the measure will then either go straight onto the ballot, or circle back to the state legislature for another round of inspection.
With a referendum, voters can organize to potentially reject an act from the legislature. Usually, after a law has been passed, there’s a 90-day grace period when voters can organize a petition to hold a referendum before the law goes into effect. Otherwise, in states with ballot initiative processes, voters can petition to hold a referendum outside of that 90-day period, after the law has taken effect.
“Fifteen states in the country have the ability to amend their state constitutions via the citizen initiative processes, meaning that any group or individual can propose enshrining the right to abortion in their constitution,” Moore says. “An additional 11 states have the right to amend state statutes via a citizen initiative and have the ability to propose laws that would protect and expand abortion rights and access.”
Of course, this isn’t always easy. Each state has its own unique approach to ballot initiatives, and some of them are more convoluted than others (I’m looking at you, Texas). Currently, only 26 states, plus Washington, D.C., have ballot initiative processes directly available to people in the state. For the 24 states that don’t have these processes available, ballot measures must be approved by state lawmakers through a process called “legislative referral.”
There’s a huge difference between a ballot initiative and a legislative referral: while the ballot initiative process allows people to organize and advocate for ballot measures through gathering petition signatures, the legislative referral process only allows voters to approve or reject laws placed before them by their state lawmakers — meaning voters don’t really get a say over what issues they’re voting on, just on how they’re voting. But while it’s a lot easier to get a measure on a ballot in a state that uses the initiative process than the legislative referral process, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s impossible to get the issues you care about on a ballot.
For states that only use the legislative referral process, elected officials play a critical role in the kinds of issues brought to voters on the ballot, as they’re the ones deciding what goes on it. And for states with conservative-leaning legislatures, like Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and Texas, to name a few, it can be incredibly difficult to secure a ballot measure that expands reproductive rights. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so important to participate in your local elections – to ensure your state legislature holds politicians in office that represent you, especially when it comes to critical issues like reproductive rights and abortion.
“It’s important that campaigns, citizens, and activists center people who have had abortions and those who will be the most impacted by abortion bans,” says Moore. But she notes that protecting abortion rights isn’t a one-and-done action that’s over after a vote. “It’s also important that there is a process of intentional, long-term planning following the 360 lifecycle of a ballot measure (incubation/planning, qualification, campaign phase, and implementation) that brings campaigns towards a process of equity and success. ”
To find out if you can petition to put abortion rights on the ballot in your state, it’s important to find out what your state’s unique laws are when it comes to ballot initiatives. For the most updated information on your state’s laws, you can visit Ballotpedia to learn more. Additionally, if you’re curious about the current ballot measures in your state, you can visit the Statewide Ballot Measures Database.
“The most important thing in all of this is community involvement from everyday people. We need to work together to find solutions to protect access in abortion in our communities, states and country,” Moore says. “I want to urge everyone to find the people already organizing to protect and liberate abortion locally and follow their lead, and become a part of the movement and solution to the overturning of Roe.”