Could North Dakota voters decide the future of abortion access in 2024?
Some North Dakota abortion rights activists have begun to think about mounting a ballot measure campaign in 2024 to re-legalize the procedure if it becomes prohibited.
BISMARCK — With abortion likely to be outlawed in North Dakota, activists on both sides of the divisive issue are mapping out their next moves. It’s a long road to 2024, most agree, but the next election year could prove pivotal in the future of abortion access.
Last week, a Bismarck judge temporarily blocked an abortion ban from taking effect in the state, but a “trigger” law passed by lawmakers in 2007 dictates that the procedure should become illegal with the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Elsewhere in the Great Plains, Kansans voted earlier this month to shoot down a proposed constitutional amendment that would have removed abortion protections. Abortion-rights advocates see the result in the conservative-leaning state as a sign that the public favors open access to the procedure.
Voters in at least four other states, including Montana, will respond to questions on abortion during November’s general election, but in North Dakota, it’s too late for any abortion-related measures to end up on the ballot.
Some North Dakota abortion-rights activists have begun to think about mounting a ballot measure campaign in 2024 to re-legalize the procedure if it becomes prohibited.
Prairie Action North Dakota Director Amy Jacobson told Forum News Service members of her “progressive” organization have spoken about a possible ballot measure, but she noted that the first priority is keeping an eye on conservative lawmakers that could further restrict reproductive rights during next year’s legislative session.
Jacobson, the former state director of Planned Parenthood, said she and like-minded activists couldn’t even begin an initiated measure campaign for about a year, but it’s important to “continue conversations about what a ballot measure could look like.”
On the other side of the issue, anti-abortion lawmakers and advocates say they are not eying a ballot measure to cement abortion restrictions in the state constitution.
North Dakota Catholic Conference Director Christopher Dodson said he doesn’t see why such a constitutional amendment would be necessary if state law contained an abortion ban.
The consensus among “pro-life” leaders nationally is to let the new abortion laws settle down, to focus on programs for women and children and to see what the abortion-rights side does next, Dodson said.
State Sen. Janne Myrdal, an Edinburg Republican and fervent abortion opponent, told Forum News Service she hasn’t heard any rumblings about a lawmaker-led effort to directly place an anti-abortion constitutional measure on the ballot.
Myrdal said she thinks North Dakota will have some of the best abortion laws in the country once the trigger law takes effect. Like Dodson, the lawmaker said she plans to aim her attention at improving the lives of children and young mothers by creating “a culture of life where abortion is unthinkable.”
Where do North Dakotans stand on abortion?
The fate of an abortion-related ballot question would hinge on North Dakotans’ attitudes toward the issue, but public opinion isn’t exactly clear because most of the data points used to measure it are outdated.
In 2014, nearly two-thirds of voters rejected a legislatively referred measure that would have amended the state constitution to include language stating that the “inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected."
But activists don’t agree on how much stock to place in the vote eight years ago.
Jacobson, who worked to oppose the measure, pointed to the result as evidence that North Dakotans are “thoughtful voters” who want access to abortion.
Dodson said the 2014 measure was “strangely worded” and failed because it left voters confused.
The most recent reliable polling found by Forum News Service also came from 2014. A Pew Research Center study found that 51% of North Dakota adults believed abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, while 47% thought it should be legal in all or most cases.
However, there are some indicators that public opinion has shifted nationally toward abortion-rights in the last eight years.
In 2014, 55% of respondents to a national Pew survey said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. That majority grew to 61% in a survey taken earlier this year.
Survey results published in June suggest a majority of Americans disapprove of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, even in states like North Dakota where abortion is expected to be restricted.
A July poll from South Dakota, which is demographically and politically similar to its northern sister state, found that a majority of respondents thought the state's abortion ban was too restrictive, according to South Dakota News Watch.
Jacobson believes that if North Dakotans were given the chance to vote on abortion, they “will uphold abortion rights because they have in the past.”
Dodson said North Dakotans’ election of a largely anti-abortion legislature proves that most are opposed to legalizing the procedure.
University of North Dakota political science professor Mark Jendrysik said he thinks there’s “a strong pro-life majority in North Dakota,” but an abortion-rights measure could resonate with some voters who see a total ban on abortion as too harsh.
Jendrysik said the wording of a ballot question to re-legalize abortion would be critical. If the measure aims to allow “abortion on demand,” it probably won’t succeed, but a more modest proposal has a better chance, the professor said.
Getting on the ballot
If activists on either side of the issue decide to launch an initiated measure effort, they will face a steep climb to the ballot.
A statutory measure needs about 15,500 valid signatures to make the ballot, while a constitutional measure requires about 31,000 signatures.
Dave Owen, a political consultant and veteran of North Dakota’s ballot measure process, said an abortion-rights campaign would likely have to go the more onerous constitutional measure route to avoid getting overridden by the Republican-led legislature. Owen noted that he personally “doesn’t want to touch” the abortion issue.
Owen, the leader of multiple campaigns to put marijuana legalization before voters, said the cost of making a serious run at the ballot would come in around $750,000 for a constitutional measure. Such a campaign would need well-paid petitioners, senior staff, liability insurance and signature verifiers.
An abortion-rights group would have difficulty finding signature gatherers due to the resentment they might receive from protesters, Owen said. He noted that his marijuana legalization circulators had to cancel a shift one time because of protester interference.
“Circulators will be yelled at and screamed at,” Owen said. “No one’s going to want to work for $20 an hour.”
An anti-abortion group might have an easier time gathering signatures since they could likely gain access to church congregants more easily, Owen said.
Owen believes an abortion measure on either side of the issue could make it onto the ballot in 2024, but the funding and staffing hurdles stand in the way.