The abortion rights victory in Ohio this month resulted from years of thoughtful organizing and relationship building.
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Often overlooked, odd-year elections are a testing ground for those willing to invest. Traditionally disregarded as “off-cycle,” odd-year elections nevertheless decide the trajectory for state and local decision-making for years to come. Occasionally, these elections can offer a needed jolt of inspiration and motivation often reserved for more high-profile election years.
This was the case in Ohio early this month, where voters passed two statewide ballot measures making way for legalized recreational marijuana and protecting abortion as a constitutional right. Ohio voters delivered the seventh straight electoral victory for abortion rights. The recent Ohio election is an example of why odd-year elections should not be treated as downtime but instead as chances to protect and expand our democracy. It is also more proof that year-round civic engagement and deep organizing are necessary for progressive electoral success.
While many pundits and would-be political commentators have tried to explain the Ohio election outcomes, a proper analysis must acknowledge the efforts put in by organizations on the ground. Groups like the Ohio Organizing Collaborative had been preparing for such a moment. Back in 2020, Truthout reported that the Ohio Organizing Collaborative was playing the long game in developing relationships and engaging with groups the organization considers the “real swing voters.” On November 7, their preparation paid off.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to electoral success, but the takeaways from Ohio reinforce several core values of building winning coalitions and sustained political power.
Reach People Through Their Values and Communities They Come From
In an interview with Truthout, Ohio Organizing Collaborative Co-Executive Director Prentiss Haney said the election outcomes in Ohio were made possible by voters showing up despite ongoing structural inequities and barriers to ballot access. Haney attributes part of the electoral success to Black voter turnout. According to the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, when compared to 2022, Black early voter turnout increased by 9 percent in certain areas engaged by the organization. From data available on the Ohio secretary of state’s website, voter turnout was just shy of 50 percent. The 2023 results surpassed prior odd-year general elections in 2017 and 2015 with turnout of 30.29 percent and 43.24 percent respectively.
“A sleeping giant of Black voters who have been disenfranchised, divested from for at least a decade, decided they were going to show up and fight for their freedom and their agency,” Haney said. “That is a true testament to what our democracy is supposed to do and close to delivering for folks that day.”
During the 2023 election cycle, the organization worked with partners to test approaches to Black voter turnout from a perspective that did not treat them as a monolith. In collaboration with researchers Katrina Gamble, Ph.D. of Sojourn Strategies and Terrance Woodbury of HIT Strategies, the Ohio Organizing Collaborative developed a data-informed model that engaged with potential Black voters’ diverse values and views. This work yielded four clusters of Black voters for outreach and engagement purposes: “legacy civil rights” (age 50+ lean strongly Democrat), “nextgen optimists” (age 18-49 and also lean strongly Democratic but vote less frequently), “rightfully cynical” (younger Black voters with an average age of 42 and who tend to identify as independents), and “race-neutral conservatives” (most likely millennials who vote more sporadically than the other clusters, with less than half identifying as Republican).
Getting deep into electoral organizing theory, Haney explained that voters like those considered “rightfully cynical” often need the same deep connection given to those traditionally considered swing voters.
“Too often, our campaigns see them as mobilization targets, but they’re actually persuasion targets,” Haney said. “They’re swinging between voting and non-voting because they want their political power to be respected.”
The difference in the approaches is real and a matter of deeper investment and effort in engaging these voters to participate in this election. Engaging these voters with more consistent outreach led them not only to choose to turn out but also to develop a sense of agency and power in this process, Haney said.
He also shared that this research and analysis — coupled with more than 15 years of organizing and community building through the Ohio Organizing Collaborative — created opportunities to help these different groups of voters see a path to political power and action. Using the “nextgen optimists” as an example, he shared the organization’s work alongside the Ohio Student Association including distributing “tens of thousands” of voter guides to help young voters feel engaged and informed.
“Through the work we’ve done at [the Ohio Organizing Collaborative] over the years, we built vehicles of belonging and agency,” he said. “Agency was on the ballot. And guess what? You cannot have a democracy if you don’t have agency.”
This realignment in approach to voters, particularly Black voters, is essential. To Haney and others, elected officials often do not respect or “feel like they have to represent” Black voters. Black voters are often met with a mirage of democracy at election time that doesn’t comport with their experience. Voter purges, extreme gerrymandering that has diluted Black political power, and other structural barriers continue to exist.
“What would it mean if we had a country where every voice was respected, and every person participated to inform our country in our governance?” Haney opined. “If we started from that place, year-round investment would not even be a question. It would be a mandate. Because what we’re trying to get done is actually fully realize a democracy that can deliver for all of us.”
Build Coalitions Around People’s Needs and Values
Pastor Lesley Jones, a faith leader and organizing director with the Amos Project, shared with Truthout that the recent election highlights the importance of investing in coalitions that put power in the hands of working-class people. Reflecting on her advocacy and support for Issue 1, which established a constitutional right to abortion, Jones said that as a faith leader who sees the world through a “progressive theological lens,” she has a mandate to be a voice for the community.
“What people miss is that when you build coalitions around everyday people and their needs, often they align, and they begin to vote,” Jones said. “People do not know that we care unless we show up and build relationships that say we care.”
Focused on building a “fair Ohio through faith in action,” the Amos Project works with clergy people of faith in congregations across the state. She said that the dismissal of Ohio as a red state and resulting Democratic disinvestment ignores how rich the opportunities are to build winning coalitions in the Buckeye State. Like Haney, Jones stressed the importance of building genuine relationships with people. While it may seem simple, candidates and campaigns must emphasize relationship building as the foundation for sustaining coalitions. Organizing is about the relationships people forge and not simply a means to an electoral end. Whether people call it relational organizing or something else, investing in building across shared values and interests matters most.
“We’re not just coming in,” Jones said. “We’ve been building something that could be sustained over and beyond electoral season because, quite frankly, folks got sick of that.”
Part of that relationship building involves engaging people on the issues and values that matter most to their lives. As a faith leader with progressive views, Jones shares that her faith guides her to speak up on policies and issues that lead us toward real equity and justice.
“It’s not enough for me just to preach people happy on Sunday,” she said. “I see myself as a faith leader — particularly in the Black church tradition — a mouthpiece for my community and a champion for their rights, for their freedoms.”
Young Voters Matter
Another important aspect of Ohio organizers’ approach to this election was engaging and turning out young voters. Young voters have become an increasingly important voting bloc, with more groups investing in unleashing their untapped potential.
In an interview with Truthout, student leader Aveline Clark of the Ohio Student Association said that organizing fellow students around Issue 1 was about connecting around shared values. As a canvass captain at the University of Akron, Clark provided information to her peers about the electoral process and how to cast their ballot in the election.
She also shared that she was confident going into the election but rejoiced to see Ohioans choose bodily autonomy and personal freedom over the alternative.
“It’s not a radical leap to say that the government shouldn’t have control over every single aspect of our bodies,” Clark said. “And I think that’s a pretty common perspective in Ohio despite us having a lot of conservative legislators.”
Continuing to engage youth voters as part of creating long-term, civic-minded people requires more than repetitive claims of yet another election being “the most important of our lifetime.” Conversely, Clark said that removing barriers to voter registration and ballot access will only benefit youth voters’ ability to engage in the democratic process.
She also shared that a secret to successful youth engagement is having youth organizers leading the way — and by young people, she doesn’t mean people in their 30s. Even with the organizing success of youth-led movements around climate justice and gun violence and the election of the first Gen Z member of Congress, Clark says there’s still a reluctance to entrust youth activists with organizing their peers.
“I was able to communicate with people on my campus because it’s my campus,” Clark said. “I would try to use as few technical terms as possible and try to relate to the people I was talking to.”
Clark also shared a big lesson she sees from the 2023 Ohio election: the importance of believing people are worth the investment.
“Ohio, as we just saw, can definitely go blue,” she said. “It can definitely be a more progressive state. Sometimes, the political calculus has to have a little more empathy.”