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Abortion rights groups seek ballot measures in 9 more states in 2024

Despite an unbroken winning streak since Roe v. Wade was overturned, some of the efforts to enshrine abortion rights in state constitutions face substantial challenges.
Issue 1 watch party in Columbus, Ohio
Supporters of the Ohio pro-abortion-rights ballot measure, Issue 1, were victorious on Nov. 7.Sue Ogrocki / AP file

Seeking to extend their unbroken winning streak, abortion rights supporters are already deeply entrenched in efforts in at least nine states to put the issue on the ballot in 2024. Groups have begun collecting signatures to let voters in these states decide on similar initiatives.

The latest victory for the movement was in Ohio, where voters enshrined abortion rights in the constitution of the Republican-leaning state.

It’s all part of a growing effort to put abortion rights directly in the hands of voters — a movement that took off after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in its June 2022 Dobbs decision.

“We’ve already seen the power of direct democracy in seven states where campaigns to protect or restore abortion rights won resoundingly,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, the CEO of Planned Parenthood’s political arm — a group closely involved in state efforts to expand abortion rights. “Across the country, voters are eager to fight the tide of anti-abortion policies pushed by politicians.”

Many, however, face a far less certain path forward than previous efforts. In some deep-red states where such efforts are underway, hurdles include public opinion on abortion care that is much less supportive, while in others, the obstacles are technical — including difficult signature and passage thresholds.

Still, advocates in a number of states say they see a clear road to more success.

Tough road ahead in Nebraska, South Dakota and Missouri

In Nebraska, a coalition of abortion rights advocates called Protect Our Rights launched an effort last week to have a ballot measure placed next November that would enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution up until fetal viability, or about the 24th week of pregnancy. The proposal includes exceptions beyond that time for a woman’s life and health.

Currently, abortion is illegal in Nebraska after about the 12th week of pregnancy, with exceptions for rape, incest and saving the mother’s life.

Ashlei Spivey, a member of Protect Our Rights’ executive committee, said petitions will begin circulating next week.

To successfully place the measure on the ballot, the group must obtain the signatures of about 123,000 registered voters by early July. Making the task more difficult, however, is a requirement in Nebraska that the bundle must also include at least 5% of registered voters in 38 of the state’s 93 counties.

A disproportionate number of Democratic voters in the solidly red state live in just a handful of counties surrounding Omaha and Lincoln; only two of the state’s 93 counties voted for President Joe Biden in 2020.

Spivey said getting that required number of signatures in more than three dozen counties would be a challenge, and that doing so would be one of the “most important steps” in the process for the group.

But, she added, “the issue of abortion care is not political, it’s not about red or blue — it’s really about an individual’s right to health care.”

Officials leading an effort in neighboring South Dakota to have a ballot measure placed there in 2024 have been working to overcome similar challenges.

A group called Dakotans for Health is seeking to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot next fall that would make abortion legal in all situations in the first trimester of a pregnancy. The proposal would allow abortion to remain illegal in the second trimester except when a woman’s health or life is at risk. In the third trimester, the proposal would allow exceptions only when the woman’s life is at risk. If passed, the amendment would effectively undo the state’s near-total ban on abortion, which snapped back into effect after Roe was struck down. The law, which abortion advocates say is among the harshest in the U.S., prohibits all abortions except when necessary to save the mother’s life.

To place the measure, Dakotans for Health first must collect 35,000 signatures from registered voters before May 7.

Group co-founder Adam Weiland said they have anticipated significant resistance from opponents in the state and nationally and already collected about 50,000 signatures.

But major obstacles remain. More than in many other states where similar efforts are underway, abortion opponents have aggressively challenged the group’s doings in court for over a year. Most recently, they’ve launched a robust “decline to sign” movement.

Weiland, however, predicted that the state’s strict ban will help turn out signers as well as voters if the measure makes it to the November ballot.

“One big difference here that might help is how extreme our ban is here,” he said. “We’ve got the most extreme abortion ban in the whole country.”

However, polling in the state, which is sparse, has shown South Dakotans’ level of support for abortion rights to be substantially lower than that of voters across the U.S.

One 2022 survey found that a plurality of voters supported the state’s near-total ban, while another found respondents were almost evenly split about whether they supported the right to abortion care in first trimester of pregnancy (46% said they did support that right, while 43% said they opposed it).

Abortion rights advocates face similar landscape in Missouri, where groups have proposed 11 different amendments that would take different approaches to expanding abortion rights in the state — but have yet to move forward with any one of them. Missouri’s near-total ban on abortion (care is only allowed in a “medical emergency” to save the woman’s life) snapped back into effect after the Dobbs decision.

The most prominent effort so far seeks to put to voters a constitutional amendment that would legalize abortion up until the point of fetal viability, though there is also a Republican-led effort underway in the state that could result in an amendment that imposes less severe abortion restrictions than what the state law currently mandates.

Republicans have launched efforts in at least two states — Iowa and Pennsylvania — to put amendments on the ballot that would restrict abortion rights.

In both states, lawmakers, not citizens, control the amendment referral process. Iowa’s GOP-controlled Legislature has advanced an amendment that says no right to abortion exists in the state constitution, and the measure would need to be passed again in the upcoming term before it could appear on the November ballot. The same scenario exists in Pennsylvania, though passage of such a measure is far less certain because Democrats narrowly control the state House.

Questions abound in Florida

Meanwhile, an effort in Florida to amend the state constitution to ban abortion restrictions up until fetal viability faces hurdles — but its backers are still exceedingly hopeful.

The group leading the effort, Floridians Protecting Freedom, must collect the valid signatures of close to 900,000 registered voters in the state by Feb. 1 to move forward with the process of getting the proposal on the November 2024 ballot.

The group has so far had about 492,000 signatures validated, meaning it still must collect nearly half the required amount in just 10 weeks — a tight timeline.

In addition, Republicans and abortion opponents in the state have fought the effort at every turn.

Conservative attorneys are battling the proposal’s wording as well as the group’s signature collection efforts. Attorney General Ashley Moody, a Republican, has filed a brief with the state Supreme Court urging it to keep the question from appearing on the ballot, regardless of the outcome of the signature collection.

And as NBC News reported last month, abortion rights supporters in Florida have expressed concerns that national Democratic organizations have largely ignored the issue in the state.

While supporters project optimism — Lauren Brenzel, the campaign director for Floridians Protecting Freedom, said her group “has the time, resources, and momentum to win” — the path to victory is uphill.

Unlike in many other states, the measure would have to receive the support of 60% of voters in November — not a simple majority — to pass.

Currently, abortion is legal in Florida up to 15 weeks, though that law’s future will be determined by the state Supreme Court. However, if the court upholds the law, the decision would actually mean that a six-week abortion ban, with exceptions for rape, incest and the mother’s life — which was enacted earlier this year but remains blocked — would be allowed to stand.

If passed in November, the amendment would effectively undo both laws.

Success more likely in Nevada, Arizona, Maryland, New York and Colorado

The paths ahead for placing proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot in five other states are far rosier.

In Arizona, a group called Arizona for Abortion Access is seeking to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot that would create a “fundamental right” to receive abortion care up until fetal viability. After that point, the measure would bar the state from restricting abortion care in situations where the health or life of the pregnant person is at risk, according to the treating health care professional.

Under Arizona law, abortion care is legal up until the 15th week of pregnancy, with an exception after that to save the mother’s life but no exceptions for rape or incest.

To get the measure placed, the group will need to gather about 384,000 valid signatures from registered voters in the state by July 3.

Chris Love, who helps lead the group, said the group has so far “met and exceeded” its monthly goals and is on pace to gather far more signatures that are required.

She said the group was optimistic about success, citing polling in the state consistently showing that an overwhelming majority of voters want abortion to be legal in at least some cases. 

In neighboring Nevada, where abortion is already legal up until the 24th week of pregnancy, advocates are looking to put on the ballot a constitutional amendment that would enshrine similar language — protecting abortion rights up until fetal viability — and make it close to impossible for lawmakers to ever undo those protections.

Nevadans for Reproductive Freedom, the group leading the effort, must collect 103,000 signatures by June 26 to get the measure on the November ballot. But even if it passes, it would have to, under Nevada law, pass again in 2026 before the constitution is formally amended.

Having an abortion question on the ballot in both Arizona and Nevada — two crucial swing states — could help boost Democratic turnout in the 2024 presidential election by tapping into the enthusiasm around the issue.

In the solidly blue states of Maryland and New York, lawmakers — who control the amendment process in those states — have already succeeded in putting measures on the 2024 ballot that would enshrine abortion rights in those states’ constitutions.

Both states already have lenient abortion laws and the amendments are already widely expected to pass.

And in Colorado, where abortion is already legal in all situations, groups are in the early stages of proposing an amendment that would formally enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution. The proposal would also end a ban on the use of state funds for abortion care.