A poll released last week received attention because a response to one of its questions. It seemed to show a close contest for an abortion-rights amendment that’s on the ballot next Tuesday.
But a closer look at that and another recent poll indicate that opponents of the amendment still face an uphill fight.
Issue 1 would build abortion rights into the Ohio Constitution up to the point of fetal viability outside the pregnant person’s body. It comes after the U.S. Supreme Court last year overturned Roe v Wade, clearing the way for enforcement of harsh state abortion limits already on the books.
In Ohio’s case, that means banning the overwhelming majority of abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy — even when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
As horror stories stemming from enforcement of such laws proliferated, state ballot measures protecting abortion rights have been on an unbroken winning streak, with a measure last year carrying conservative Kansas by a gobsmacking 19-point margin.
Those results leave abortion opponents desperate for a win and abortion-rights advocates eager to continue building momentum.
So, when Ohio Northern University last week released a poll, one of its findings drew keen interest. It asked whether respondents agreed with the summary language of Issue 1 that will appear on the ballot. While that might sound like a technicality, the exact wording that will be on the ballot is important.
In August, Secretary of State Frank LaRose, an abortion opponent, led a split Ohio Ballot Board in adopting a ballot “summary.” Not only is the “summary” roughly the same length as the amendment itself, it differs from the amendment in ways that critics say are intended to mislead.
For example, it substituted the term “unborn child” for “fetal viability.”
In an attempt to capture the effect that might have on the vote, pollsters at Ohio Northern asked some respondents whether they agreed with that amendment language and asked others whether they agreed with the language proposed by the League of Women Voters. The disparity was big.
An overwhelming 68% agreed with the amendment as described by the League of Women Voters. But that number shrank to just 52% for the respondents who were asked about the language that will actually be on the ballot, thanks to LaRose and two others on the Ballot Board.
But what does that mean practically?
“Change in Ballot language may have big effect on support for Issue 1,” reads the title of that section of the Ohio Northern poll report.
However, the same poll found that 65% of respondents think that abortion should be legal in most circumstances and 57% believed the Supreme Court shouldn’t have overturned Roe v Wade.
More to the point, 70% said they had heard “quite a lot about Issue 1” and another 24% said they had heard some about it. That means that almost all respondents know something about the matter and presumably many will have formed opinions before going into the voting booth and seeing the Ballot Board’s language.
“If this were a more obscure issue, the language would matter vastly more,” said University of Cincinnati political scientist David Niven. “But when this is the headline act of the entire election, almost no one is going to the polls to read the language on the ballot and make up their mind there.”
If, as their detractors claim, LaRose and two others on the ballot board intended to dampen support for Issue 1 by using the language they did, they picked the wrong topic, Niven said.
“There’s a boatload of good research that says language matters,” he said. “But it’s entirely based on the idea that you’re confronting this issue based on the language presented to you rather than confronting the issue based on deeply held beliefs.”
The idea that the controversial ballot language will crash up against already-formed opinions also seems bolstered by another of the poll’s findings: When asked how they planned to vote on Issue 1, 60% said yes.
That jibes with the results of the Baldwin Wallace University Ohio Pulse Poll released earlier in October. In it, 58% said they would vote in support of Issue 1.
However, these are just polls — imperfect predictors in the best of circumstances. The fates of Issue 1, marijuana-legalizing Issue 2 and other matters on the ballot depend heavily on what happens Tuesday. That’s because more than 52% of respondents to the Baldwin Wallace poll said they’d wait until Election Day to cast their ballots.