Voting begins in Ohio in the only election this fall to decide abortion rights

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Voters stand in partitioned booths to fill out their ballots during early in-person voting at the Hamilton County Board of Elections in Cincinnati, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

COLUMBUS, Ohio – In-person voting for a November ballot measure over abortion rights began Wednesday in Ohio, the latest state where voters will decide the issue after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a nationwide right to the procedure last year.

Ohio is the only state to put an abortion rights question before voters this fall, making it a testing ground for messaging ahead of the 2024 elections when it's expected to be on the ballot in more states and a major factor in races up and down the ballot.

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Election officials throughout the state are generally predicting heavier-than-normal turnout for an off-year vote because of the high-profile campaigning over Issue 1, a constitutional amendment that seeks to enshrine abortion rights.

Mary Weiss was among the voters who entered an early voting center in Toledo during the first day of early in-person voting ahead of Election Day on Nov. 7.

“Women should have total control over their own bodies," said Weiss, who lives in the Toledo suburb of Sylvania. "No one should be making those decisions for us.”

Initial early voting numbers won’t be available from the secretary of state’s office until next week, but absentee ballot requests in Ohio’s three most populous counties — home to about a third of the state's total population — have been far greater this year than in Ohio’s last off-year election in November 2021.

The voting beginning this week follows a heavy-turnout special election over the summer, when voters defeated an attempt by Republican lawmakers to make it much harder to pass constitutional amendments. Republicans and anti-abortion groups had hoped to pass that measure ahead of the fall vote on abortion rights.

AP VoteCast polling last year found that 59% of Ohio voters say abortion should generally be legal.

Several vote centers visited Wednesday had no lines but a steady trickle of voters. Among them was Jonathan Griffiths from the Dayton suburb of Beavercreek. A Republican, Griffiths said he voted yes on the constitutional amendment to protect abortion rights.

“I'm fairly conservative, but I'm also married and have daughters and granddaughters,” he said. "Women's body, women's choice."

Ohio's proposed constitutional amendment would give every person “the right to make and carry out one’s own reproductive decisions.” The effort comes on the heels of a string of victories for abortion rights supporters around the country who have been winning in both Democratic and heavily Republican states since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade decision, which had legalized abortion nationwide for half a century.

Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and first lady Fran DeWine, who cast votes against Issue 1 in rural Xenia on Wednesday, urged Ohioans to oppose the measure. The governor said it “goes too far for Ohio.”

“If we're able to defeat this, then I think we can come together as a state and find a place where a majority of Ohioans can, in fact, agree,” he said.

Shari Moore, a retired banker from suburban Toledo who voted against the amendment along with her husband, said it was a decision rooted in their Christian beliefs.

“Abortion is murder,” she said. “It’s a dangerous thing for Ohio and for the whole country.”

Linda Debard, 73, a retired French teacher from Columbus, said she would be voting yes on the amendment “because I believe firmly that it's nobody's business but the family's what decisions you make with women's health care. No. Keep the government, politicians out of it.”

Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights, the campaign promoting the amendment, emphasizes the measure would prevent Ohio's ban on most abortions after fetal cardiac activity is detected from taking effect. A judge's order has placed that 2019 law on hold, but the Ohio Supreme Court, which has a Republican majority, is considering whether to lift that stay.

Supporters' ads say abortion-related decisions should be kept between a woman and her family, doctor and faith leaders, not regulated by government.

The opposition campaign, Protect Women Ohio, has zeroed in on questions raised by Issue 1's broad wording, citing legal theories — as yet, untested — that passing the amendment would jeopardize Ohio's parental consent requirements for minors receiving abortions and other types of medical care.

Opponents also have campaigned heavily on the idea that the amendment would allow abortions to happen in the final stages of pregnancy, despite such procedures being rare and generally involving life-threatening situations. Misinformation has also swirled around the campaign.

Sam Zern, a regional field organizer for Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights and a graduate student at Kent State University, said the organization has seen “an inspiring amount of energy on college campuses” around the state.

Protect Women Ohio spokesperson Amy Natoce said the group has seen strong turnout at its events, including a March for Life last Friday at the state capital. She said it's placing “a huge emphasis on people getting out and banking their vote before Nov. 7.”

A second question on Ohio’s November ballot asks whether Ohioans want to legalize recreational marijuana. If passed, it would make Ohio the 24th state to legalize cannabis for adult use.

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Associated Press writer John Seewer in Toledo, Ohio, contributed to this report.