Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, campaigns to protect abortion rights have galvanized voters in state after state. It has become Democrats’ most successful issue ahead of an uncertain 2024 election cycle — and their biggest hope, especially after voters in Ohio approved on Tuesday a measure to enshrine abortion rights in the State Constitution.
That triumphant streak has propelled campaigns for similar abortion measures in swing, or potentially swing, states, including Arizona, Florida, Nevada and Pennsylvania. But none might be as tantalizing a prize as Florida, which has moved increasingly out of Democrats’ grasp in electoral contests.
But getting a question on next year’s ballot in the state is hardly guaranteed.
Like in Ohio, Florida’s government is controlled by Republicans. Also like Ohio, Florida has put in place a six-week abortion ban, with its enactment pending approval by the state’s Supreme Court. (That case centers on Florida’s existing 15-week ban, but affirming that restriction would then trigger the six-week ban approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis in April.)
The parallels between the two states give Florida organizers hope for success, despite steep obstacles that include a court review of the proposed ballot measure and a costly petition-gathering process. If voters in Florida get to weigh in on the abortion question, organizers say, they too are likely to want to protect their rights.
“Florida has always been a deeply libertarian state,” said Anna Hochkammer, executive director of the Florida Women’s Freedom Coalition. “‘Find your tribe, find your people, live your life — we’ll leave you alone.’ It’s part of Floridian culture. And Floridians reject outright that the government should be involved in these decisions. It is deeply offensive to Floridians’ sense of independence and freedom.”
Since June 2022, when Roe was overturned, states have given voters a direct say on abortion access, either to protect abortion rights, weaken them or explicitly exclude them from state constitutions. Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan all voted to expand or maintain abortion rights.
In Florida, a coalition of groups under the umbrella organization of Floridians Protecting Freedom, including Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union, has collected a little more than half of the nearly 900,000 petition signatures it needs for a ballot measure that aims to limit “government interference with abortion” before a fetus is considered viable, which is often around 24 weeks of pregnancy. Abortion was legal up to 24 weeks in Florida until last year.
The coalition had collected about $9 million by the end of September but says its next report will show that more than $12 million has been raised. Most donations have come from Florida, with limited interest so far from the out-of-state donors who propelled campaigns in Ohio and elsewhere.
The coalition raised more than $300,000 on Wednesday after the Ohio victory, Ms. Hochkammer said, with more people clicking through the group’s fund-raising emails or taking calls.
Among the places where volunteers and paid petition-gatherers have found eager supporters are screenings of the “Barbie” movie and the Taylor Swift Eras Tour movie, both of which have feminism as a key theme and strong female leads, said Laura Goodhue, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates.
The coalition still needs to collect — and the state must validate — about 400,000 more signatures by Feb. 1, a difficult and expensive task.
The ballot language must also be approved by the conservative-leaning Florida Supreme Court. The state’s Republican attorney general, Ashley Moody, announced a challenge to the measure last month.
She and several groups that oppose abortion have argued that the measure is too broad, vague and misleading. Florida requires that ballot questions be clear and limited to a single subject.
“This effort to hoodwink the Florida electorate should be rebuffed,” Ms. Moody wrote in a legal brief filed Oct. 31.
The ballot question, which would include a summary of the amendment that would be added to the State Constitution if the initiative passes, would read in part, “No law shall prohibit, penalize, delay or restrict abortion before viability or when necessary to protect the patient’s health, as determined by the patient’s health care provider.” The question does not adequately define “viability”; whether “the patient’s health” would include mental health; and who would be considered a “health care provider,” Ms. Moody argued.
“It’s abortion on demand for any reason,” said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, a conservative Christian group. “It’s not only extreme, but it’s deceptive — and that’s a problem.”
Mr. Stemberger said there was “a very good chance” that the State Supreme Court, whose ideological balance has shifted from liberal to conservative, could strike down the amendment. If not, his organization and others have already formed a political committee, Florida Voters Against Extremism, to prepare for a campaign.
“Ohio is just a reminder that we still have a lot of work to do,” he said. “We have to go back to the drawing board and explain to people why unborn children are valuable, why adoption is always the better option.”
Unlike in Ohio, where protecting abortion rights passed with about 57 percent of the vote, Florida requires citizen-led ballot initiatives to obtain more than 60 percent of the vote to pass. A University of North Florida poll found last year that 60 percent of residents opposed the 15-week ban after they were told that it does not include exceptions for rape or incest.
Ms. Hochkammer said the coalition’s polling suggested that more than 70 percent of Floridians supported the abortion rights measure, including 64 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of voters who supported former President Donald J. Trump.
Florida voters have tended to support ballot measures championing liberal causes, even while also electing Republican leaders who in many cases later watered down or undermined the implementation of those measures once in office.
Until recently, Florida was considered the nation’s largest presidential battleground, with elections decided by tiny margins and former President Barack Obama winning the state twice. But Republicans have been making gains: Mr. Trump won by more than three percentage points in 2020, and Governor DeSantis by 19 points, a landslide, last year.
Still, significant citizen-led constitutional measures have done well once they have overcome the hurdles to make it onto the ballot.
In 2020, voters backed a $15 hourly minimum wage — and Mr. Trump. In 2018, they voted to restore felons’ voting rights — and for Mr. DeSantis. In 2016, they voted to legalize medical marijuana — and for Mr. Trump.
“We are not a deeply conservative, extremist state,” Ms. Hochkammer said. “We are a deeply gerrymandered state, and the fact that our divided election results have been skewing a certain way should not mislead people about what the political appetite is in Florida.”