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Abortion rights win in Ohio and Virginia elections

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

What do this week's off-year elections tell us about the political climate, and what do they mean going forward for people living in Ohio, Virginia and the other states that voted on key issues Tuesday? In Ohio, voters decided to establish a constitutional protection for reproductive rights, including abortion. Ballot initiatives to protect abortion rights have now passed in several states since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year.

And in Virginia, Democrats took control of both chambers of the state legislature and will be able to prevent the Republican governor there from instituting limits on abortion going forward. Now that the dust is settled, let's take a step back and look at what this means more broadly for the country as it looks ahead to the 2024 elections. We're going to focus in on Virginia and Ohio. We're going to start with Ohio and Ohio Public Radio's Jo Ingles. Hey, Jo.

JO INGLES, BYLINE: Hi.

DETROW: So Ohio is a place where voters were directly voting on abortion rights. Remind us what the law was in the state and what this amendment will do.

INGLES: Well, there was a six-week ban on hold by courts, but the Ohio Supreme Court was considering it. And it could have been reinstated, and that ban was put in place hours after Roe v. Wade was overturned. And it remained in effect for 82 days. And you might remember, during that time, Ohio got a lot of attention because a 10-year-old rape victim had to go to Indiana to get an abortion because the state didn't have exceptions for rape and incest in that six-week law. So this amendment enshrines abortion and other reproductive rights into the Constitution, and it becomes a standard by which state laws are supposed to be applied. There are some 30 laws on the books that have been identified by Democrats as possibly being in violation of this amendment.

DETROW: All right. We're going to come back to what that means going forward and how clear or not clear it is. But first is, is it fair to call this a surprise? Because on one hand, you've seen this clear trend of state elections since Roe v. Wade was overturned. On the other hand, we have seen Ohio go so far conservative in the past decade or so, to the point that presidential elections there aren't really competitive anymore.

INGLES: Right. Ohio cities are Democratic, OK? And the rural areas are Republican, but the state is gerrymandered. So in the past few elections, the state has skewed more conservative, so Ohio is swinging in the other direction with this week's ballot issue. But it confirms some polling that we've seen over the years that Ohioans of every political stripe want, at least to some degree, to have protections for abortion.

DETROW: All right. Let's shift from Ohio to Virginia and VPM's Jahd Khalil. Hey, Jahd.

JAHD KHALIL, BYLINE: Hey.

DETROW: So things were a little different in Virginia, right? People were not directly voting on abortion there.

KHALIL: Yeah. That's right. So voters were casting ballots for, you know, a lot of different candidates, so there's a lot of different issues and factors that are weighing in into that. That said, abortion rights were definitely a big motivating factor. You know, women always sort of listed it very high. Men did, too.

So Republicans were kind of using this as a test case for new messaging. The Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, tried to sort of coalesce GOP candidates around his proposal of a 15-week abortion ban, and he also included exceptions for things like rape, incest and the life of the mother. So when they tried to sell it, they didn't say ban. They use words like common sense, consensus, limit or standard, and politicos across the country were looking at Virginia as sort of a test case for if this is going to be successful in slowing down the momentum around abortion.

DETROW: And we saw the results of the election, but you also talked to a lot of voters about how they were viewing this messaging. What did you learn?

KHALIL: Yeah, so I went to swing districts, and like I said, women always sort of put abortion in the first sentence. There was one woman that stood out to me. She is - she's young. She's white. She's in a competitive district in the suburbs. So she's kind of like the main target audience for this sort of messaging, right? So I asked her what she thought about it, and she laughed. And she goes, oh, you mean the ban is not a ban? - sort of kind of making fun of it. She actually is somebody who's against abortion personally, but she said that choice was sort of her sort of governing principle when it comes to how she votes on abortion.

DETROW: Interesting. So let's look forward in both places. Jo, I'm going to go back to you and Ohio. There was a six-week ban that had been passed. Now there's a constitutional amendment enshrining these protections. Is it clear-cut here? Does that mean that that law is null and void?

INGLES: (Laughter). No.

DETROW: No.

INGLES: The reality is the state legislative leaders are not accepting this. The amendment may not be worth the paper it's written on because 27 of the state's 67 Republicans have already signed onto a letter saying they won't change abortion laws, and their reasoning is that individual laws were not spelled out in that amendment that people voted on. And so they're saying they can't, you know, that people were kind of misled, voters were misled. And now some of the GOP lawmakers are saying they want to overthrow the judicial branch and their authority to interpret the newly passed constitutional amendment, saying that the legislature and not the court should have that power.

DETROW: So that gets this squarely into another growing trend of just pushing back against democratic norms and the rule of law and voting outcomes. But going forward in Virginia, Jahd, what is the thinking now that you have a Republican governor and a completely Democratic legislature?

KHALIL: Yeah. So there's going to be conflict between the legislature and the governor. And I think one thing that's sort of interesting about inertia around laws - so like, in Ohio, you had - Republicans are able to sort of capitalize on that there was already a ban on abortion on the books. In Virginia, they're going to be able to do the opposite, and that access is protected. I think, politically, also, there's an important lesson is that the momentum around abortion is still to the Democrats' advantage, and this new sort of messaging wasn't able to sort of stunt that.

DETROW: All right. So the story is not ending in either of these states. Jahd Khalil of VPM and Jo Ingles from Ohio Public Radio, thanks to both of you.

INGLES: Thanks for having us.

KHALIL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jo Ingles (Ohio Public Radio)
Jahd Khalil