It’s often hard to read too much into results of off-year elections, but viewed through the lens of the American Communities Project, 2023’s referenda in Ohio on abortion and marijuana offer evidence of how the fault lines on two long-divisive issues have shifted.
The numbers show support for abortion reaches beyond urban and wealthy suburban communities, but also that fissures remain on the topic, at least in Ohio. Marijuana legalization, meanwhile, seems to have become an issue with more broad-based support — or at least an issue with less strong opposition.
Together the votes indicate that the communities in The Buckeye State that have become more Republican in their voting habits, are more complicated than they appear at first glance.
Issue 1 — Abortion
Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which overturned Roe v. Wade and turned abortion back to the states, ballot questions of abortion have been a one-sided affair, with voters consistently backing a woman’s right to choose on the issue — from Kansas to Michigan.
There was some thought that Ohio’s 2023 vote might be different because Dobbs was farther in the rearview mirror. That thinking turned out to be wrong. Ohio, which gave former President Donald Trump solid eight-point wins in 2016 and 2020, voted to make abortion a state constitutional right by 13 percentage points.
Looking at the vote through the 10 ACP community types in Ohio, two things emerge. First, urban and suburban communities (where most voters live) want to keep abortion legal. Second, rural communities in the state are still strongly opposed.
Looking at those numbers, it’s probably not much of a surprise that the Big Cities, Urban Suburbs, and College Towns all gave more than 60% of their vote to make abortion a constitutional right. Those places vote solidly Democratic in most elections.
But the Middle Suburbs and Exurbs, which tend to sit around major cities, also voted yes on Issue 1, even though both types tend to lean right politically. Ottawa County, the state’s one Graying America county, also voted yes.
But counties representing rural community types in the state look quite different. In Rural Middle America, only 41% voted yes on Issue 1. In the other rural types, the “yes” vote was less than 40%.
The ACP’s recently released survey found surprisingly strong support (above 50% in all the ACP’s types) for keeping abortion a decision “made by a woman in consultation with her doctor, without government’s involvement.” But, as we noted in that analysis, that phrasing of the question tends to yield the strongest support among survey respondents.
Making abortion a “constitutional right” in a state might be a harder sell, but Ohio’s results suggest it can still obtain majority support around urban centers.
Issue 2 — Marijuana Legalization
On the surface, the Ohio vote to legalize the possession and sale of marijuana looked very similar to the vote on Issue 1. Issue 2 passed by 14 percentage points. And even looking at the vote in the ACP types in the state, the breakdown was familiar, with the urban and suburban types voting in favor and the more rural community types mostly voting against.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. In many ways the support looked flatter — with lower peaks in the cities and suburban areas and lower valleys in the rural places.
Consider Ohio’s Big City counties. A strong majority favored legalizing marijuana there, 68%, but that was five points below the 73% that voted yes on Issue 1, abortion. And support for marijuana legalization in the College Towns, 58%, was also three points lower than its support for Issue 1. It could be that in those two community types, which tend to hold more young people, some voters had concerns about legalizing another drug. Think of the town-and-gown divide in some College Towns.
In the rural places, the Issue 2 vote showed differences from the abortion vote in the other direction. They were more supportive. Even in the more rural ACP community types where Issue 2 had the least support, it garnered at least 44% of the vote.
For instance, in Working Class Country, 49% voted yes on Issue 2, while only 38% in those communities voted yes on Issue 1. And in the state’s Evangelical Hubs, 44% voted yes of marijuana legalization, while only 32% voted yes on the abortion measure.
It’s a sign that even as the much-discussed urban-rural split exists on marijuana legalization, it is smaller than it is on other topics. It may be because those rural communities see revenue or agricultural opportunities. But whatever the reason, that narrower split suggests the momentum toward legalization does not seem likely to slow.
In a political environment dominated by wedge issues, marijuana legalization appears to be moving in the other direction.