“One of the untold stories is that it’s easier to get people to vote no than it is to get them to vote yes,” says Renee Stromme, Executive Director of the North Dakota Women’s Center, when describing how nonprofits helped to defeat Measure 3 on the North Dakota ballot in June 2012.

One of four referenda on the ballot, Measure 3 would have amended the state constitution to prohibit the implementation of laws that could be defined as obstructing the exercise of religion—like the Affordable Care Act’s mandatory contraception coverage.

Portrayed as a proposition to protect religious freedom, Measure 3 was opposed by an array of reproductive rights, child advocacy, and social justice groups.They feared it would have allowed religious belief to be used as as a shield against accusations of domestic violence, child abuse, and discrimination.

The director of a child abuse prevention program in North Dakota, Tim Hathaway, warned the measure would “seriously undercut protection for children in our state by opening the door for people to claim religious freedom as a justification for maltreatment.”

Trumped-up fear of federal policy

Measure 3 was several years in the making. Proponents, led by the North Dakota Catholic Conference and the North Dakota Family Alliance, said they were motivated by the Obama administration’s support for mandated contraception coverage. Tom Freier, president of the North Dakota Family Alliance, told the Huffington Post that his group believed the contraception coverage requirement represented a concerning “level of intrusion by the government.”

Once the North Dakota Planned Parenthood Action Fund (which also serves Minnesota and South Dakota) became aware of the dangerous implications of Measure 3, it pulled together a group to oppose the measure.

The North Dakota Women’s Center served a critical function for the opposition campaign by acting as a fiscal agent – a role that nonprofits commonly (and legally) play – offering the back-end support for the campaign, including payroll, that would have otherwise been too difficult to get off the ground on such a short timeframe.

Because it was a short-term project they needed a group that had everything in place to handle staffing, like a tax identification number. Staff was hired in May for the June 12 primary. The campaign relied on a phone bank operation and canvassing effort to raise awareness about the ballot measure.

An assist from national organizations

National reproductive rights organizations, like Planned Parenthood and NARAL, joined the movement to oppose the measure, contributing financial resources, staff, and helping to organize volunteers on the ground.

In an email, NARAL described their efforts:

“We sent our staff to the state to knock on doors and meet with voters at community festivals and other public events. In addition, we organized phone banks with other pro-choice groups that contacted hundreds of voters.”

Opposition spread

The argument that Stromme believes resonated most with voters was that this was a solution in search of a problem. Religious freedom is already guaranteed in the state and federal Constitution. No one could point to any real infringements. There was no need to protect something that seemed to be, in Stromme’s words, “quite protected.”

The opposition campaign succeeded in influencing the debate enough that religious leaders were moved to speak out against the measure. The North Dakota Western Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Churches of America stated their “grave concerns” about Measure Three.

“It compelled the likes of the Lutheran denomination to come out against it,” said Stromme, notable because North Dakota is a predominantly Lutheran state.

Eventually all five major newspapers in North Dakota urged readers to vote “no” on the measure. When voters went to the polls on June 12, 2012, the ballot lost by a 64 percent to 36 percent margin.