Abortion on 2024 Ballot Isn’t a Silver Bullet for Democrats

It’s the right cause for Democrats, even if it’s not an electoral cure-all.
Photo: Jon Cherry/Getty Images

Wherever possible, Democrats are backing efforts to put measures aimed at protecting abortion rights on the 2024 ballot; so far these efforts are underway in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, and South Dakota. Merits aside, the obvious political calculation is that abortion is a major issue where Democrats have a sizable advantage over Republicans, as evidenced by the unbroken winning streak of the pro-choice cause in ballot tests since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022. So pushing them in multiple states can help Democrats win in 2024, right?

Perhaps, or perhaps not, argue Alice Miranda Ollstein, Jessica Piper, and Madison Fernandez at Politico. After looking closely at past abortion ballot measures where contests for public office were also being held, they reached the conclusion that abortion on the ballot didn’t help the Democratic Party generally:

Voters decisively upheld abortion rights in every single case. But those margins were largely driven by Republican voters who also voted for GOP candidates. And Democratic turnout didn’t consistently increase in states with abortion referendums compared to those without. Several Democrats who were on the same ballots as abortion measures lost their races.

More interestingly, the Politico analysis suggests at least one case where a 2022 abortion ballot measure was thought to have clearly played a major role in a Democratic victory may have been misunderstood. That would be in Michigan, where voters approved an abortion rights constitutional amendment while electing Democrat Gretchen Whitmer as governor and also flipping control of the state legislature:

The effects of the referendum are difficult to parse in Michigan. The state’s implementation of automatic and same-day voter registration likely also boosted youth turnout. And turnout was strong in both heavily Democratic and heavily Republican areas. Abortion rights outperformed Whitmer’s 10-point margin the most in heavily Republican areas, suggesting the significance of crossover voters who voted for abortion rights but against Whitmer on the same ballot.

It’s clearer that Democratic candidates stressing their pro-choice views had an advantage, all things being equal, over anti-abortion Republicans, whether or not there was a distinct ballot measure relating to the topic. But all things weren’t in fact equal in some cases where Republicans highly complicit in abortion restrictions (notably Florida governor Ron DeSantis and Georgia governor Brian Kemp) had no trouble dispatching pro-choice Democratic opponents.

So, Democrats would be foolish to assume that an abortion ballot measure represents some sort of electoral silver bullet that makes victory in 2024 more or less inevitable. And for that matter, much as the abortion issue favors Democrats even in red states, candidates need to have a lot more to discuss in competitive races.

That doesn’t, however, mean that it is anything less than imperative that Democrats raise the flag for abortion rights on the 2024 campaign trail, whether or not it leads to an immediate partisan victory. There are two very basic reasons.

First of all, over time, hammering away at this issue could either force Republican politicians to moderate their positions, reducing the threat to abortion rights at both the federal and state levels, or gradually convince pro-choice Republican voters — who make up at least a third of the GOP rank and file — that they need a new political affiliation. This is, in fact, how party realignment happens. It’s not instantaneous, but it can be permanent.

Second of all, and more to the point, in the post-Dobbs era, the only way to protect Democratic voters is to enshrine abortion rights in state constitutions, ending the threat that a Republican election victory could suddenly endanger this fundamental right. Eighteen states allow voters to initiate a constitutional amendment, and 49 give voters the right to approve or veto a constitutional amendment. It would be political and moral malpractice for Democrats to fail to take advantage of these avenues to vindicate the values and interests of their constituents.

Sure, it’s possible to oversell the political opportunity associated with the abortion-rights cause at a time when so many other concerns — not to mention actual candidates — motivate voters, and where different states offer different landscapes in any given election. But it’s the righteous cause, and in the long run the winning cause, and that should be enough to keep Democrats on task.

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