Florida could see next big abortion rights vote, as advocates keep winning with ballot measures

Opponents of the push claim it's extreme; supporters say it's about health care.

November 15, 2023, 10:48 AM

Ohio on Nov. 7 became the seventh state where voters directly backed abortion access since Roe v. Wade was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2022. The ballot question enshrines the right to an abortion in the state constitution, passing by 57%.

Now, abortion access advocates in Florida want to do the same thing.

Abortion in the state is currently in limbo: The Florida Supreme Court has heard arguments but not yet ruled on whether to allow a ban on the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

If the justices rule in favor of the ban, a more restrictive "trigger" law will go into effect restricting abortion access after 6 weeks of pregnancy, with some exceptions for rape, incest and the mother's health.

Abortion access advocates organizing the Florida ballot effort say 4 million women and girls of reproductive age in the state stand to be impacted.

"It's a public health crisis waiting to explode," warned Anna Hochkammer, who spearheads the Florida Women's Freedom Coalition, a PAC that is chaired by former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala.

Hochkammer's group is part of an umbrella collection of reproductive rights advocates, including the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood, that is the official ballot sponsor.

Ultimately, the state's Supreme Court will decide whether or not the abortion referendum to amend their constitution makes it onto the November 2024 ballot. The justices will weigh whether the ballot language is or isn't misleading and applies to a single subject matter.

The measure must also garner more than 890,000 signatures; advocates say they have more than 490,000 verified petitions at this point. They will need to secure the rest by the end of December.

If the measure makes it onto the November 2024 ballot, it'll need 60% support of voters to be codified into law.

PHOTO: In this July 13, 2022 file photo An abortion rights activist holds a sign at a protest in support of abortion access, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
In this July 13, 2022 file photo An abortion rights activist holds a sign at a protest in support of abortion access, March To Roe The Vote And Send A Message To Florida Politicians That Abortion Access Must Be Protected And Defended, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
John Parra/Getty Images, FILE

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody is urging the state Supreme Court to keep the measure off the ballot, contending in a recent brief that it could "hookwink" voters and "lay ticking time bombs that will enable abortion proponents later to argue that the amendment has a much broader meaning than voters would ever have thought."

Moody specifically raised issues with the referendum's definition of viability, too.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, an abortion opponent, has named five of the seven Supreme Court justices, a potential political roadblock, according to the advocates.

What the proposed amendment says

It states: "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 healthcare provider."

"This amendment does not change the Legislature's constitutional authority to require notification to a parent or guardian before a minor has an abortion," the proposed referendum continues.

The Floridians Protecting Freedom, the umbrella group backing the measure, consulted a former state Supreme Court justice -- in addition to lawyers and other abortion advocates -- while crafting their proposal, keeping similar language to Roe v. Wade around allowing abortion before viability, typically around 24 to 26 weeks into pregnancy.

Opponents, however, call the push extreme.

John Stemberger with the anti-abortion Florida Family Policy Council told ABC News by in a phone interview that he thinks the amendment language is not straightforward and too broad.

He argued that it "seems reasonable and popular but really makes it an abortion-on-demand amendment. Voters are very uncomfortable with that. They are comfortable with some restrictions on abortion."

PHOTO: In  this June 27, 2022 file photo Anti-abortion activists pray during a demonstration, at the Florida International University campus, in Miami, Fla.
In this June 27, 2022 file photo Anti-abortion activists pray during a demonstration, at the Florida International University campus, in Miami, Fla.
Cristobal Herrera-Ulashkevich/EPA via Shutterstock, FILE

The chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, Christian Ziegler, also maintains that the proposed amendment is extreme: "Make no mistake -- they [organizers] want to codify this, then they want to expand on from there."

Supporters of the ballot measure say their strategy is to lean into the argument that is about public health, safety and women's welfare while pushing back on accusations they want a huge loosening of the law.

"Abortion has been a part of the political universe in America since the 1970s," Hochkammer said. "There's not a lot of voter education that needs to happen here. We have been hashing this out for generations."

Will the ballot motivate voters?

Hochkammer said that she's focused on the health care services that the amendment would provide if approved but does recognize the ripple effects that a deeply personal issue like abortion could have on the political climate of the state next November.

"When you put abortion on the ballot, voters turn out. And in particular, women turn out and younger people turn out," she said.

While Florida has trended increasingly Republican in recent years, it's historically a swing state that could help determine who wins the presidency in 2024. As one of the largest states, it also hosts dozens of important congressional and other political races.

Hochkammer recently attended a private, reproductive health care roundtable event in Miami with Vice President Kamala Harris' husband, second gentleman Doug Emhoff.

"He doubled down on the fact that the Biden-Harris campaign understands that 2024 is about Dobbs and democracy," Hochkammer said of the meeting.

Democratic state Rep. Anna Eskamani said she views abortion as a bipartisan issue -- not something in strictly red versus blue terms.

Other abortion ballot initiatives, in Ohio as well as Kansas, Kentucky and beyond, have all overwhelmingly succeeded regardless of the state's typical partisan leaning.

"Ballot amendments do transcend party lines which is why they are successful. I feel confident that given the chance, voters will support abortion access regardless of their affiliation," Eskamani said.

Florida has seen several ballot referendums succeed in recent years. In 2018, an initiative restoring voting rights for most former felons passed with more than 60% approval. Then, an effort to increase the minimum wage in the state to $15 passed in 2020.

Ziegler though, believes Florida is insulated from the pro-abortion access trends seen elsewhere in the country. He pointed to how an anticipated "red wave" actually did materialize in Florida in the 2022 midterms, with Republicans winning a slew of contests compared with other states.

"The Democratic Party in Florida is facing extinction," Ziegler declared in his phone interview with ABC News.

The party head argued that Democrats "pitch these constitutional amendments and they think it'll drive turnout" -- a flawed strategy in his estimation as he views the state as continuing to trend red in its politics. A Florida mom of two in the state cares more about cultural issues, he said -- as was borne out in 2022 when Gov. Ron DeSantis leaned into the culture wars and won by 20 points.

But for the pro-abortion access groups, the recent Ohio results bode well and reinvigorated their donor community inside Florida and nationally, they said.

"The issue polls even better here than it did in Ohio," said Hochkammer. "As long as we can bring funds and attention and political coordination and funds to this, there is a fantastic chance this thing can pass and we can get this in the Florida Constitution."