Opponents Call SAFE Acts ‘Extremist,’ but 5 Veto Overrides Suggest Otherwise
The Ohio state legislature on Wednesday became the fifth to override a governor’s veto to enact a law protecting minors from gender transition procedures. With every successful veto override, claims of “extremism” lodged against the bill appear more and more far-fetched.
Accusations of extremism began with the very first Save Adolescents from Experimentation (SAFE) Act, passed by the Arkansas legislature in 2021 (HB 1570). The bill sailed through the House (70-22) on March 10 and the Senate (28-7) on March 29. Despite these wide margins, Human Rights Campaign (HRC) President Alphonso David complained on March 13 of that year, “The furious pace of these bills shows that hateful anti-equality groups across the country and extremist legislators alike realize that equality is gaining momentum.” After then-Governor Asa Hutchinson vetoed the bill, the Arkansas legislature responded by overriding the veto (72-25 in the House, 25-8 in the Senate) on April 6.
The campaign to protect children accelerated in 2023, when 20 state legislatures joined those of Arkansas (2021), Alabama (2022), and Arizona (2022) in passing laws to protect children from gender transition procedures (although the Ohio veto override occurred this month). As the movement grew, so did the opposition. When Tennessee enacted a bill in March, a coalition of left-wing groups including the ACLU and Lambda Legal claimed that they had “chosen fearmongering, misrepresentations, intimidation, and extremist politics over the rights of families and the lives of transgender youth.”
“Extremist, anti-LGBTQ+ politicians and their allies are waging a dangerous and cruel misinformation campaign that seeks to stigmatize not only gender-affirming care but transgender and non-binary people as well,” claimed HRC’s new president Kelley Robinson. “Through fear-mongering and propaganda, extremist leaders are working overtime to manufacture panic, rile up their base, and coax them into opposing healthcare for transgender people.”
Left-wing groups were not above indulging in a little fear-mongering of their own. “Across the country, anti-transgender extremists and politicians are putting the lives and well-being of transgender people at risk,” said Movement Advancement Project Senior Policy Researcher Logan Casey, “by attempting to outlaw access to best practice medical care not only for youth but for all transgender people.” No states have passed laws to ban gender transition procedures for adults because, although these procedures harm adults too, society recognizes that adults are competent and therefore free to make their own decisions.
Nevertheless, “extremism” remained the buzzword across the left-wing activist-sphere, especially when a governor’s veto raised the bar for passage and gave activist groups time to pile on additional pressure. “For the extremist groups that are pushing these laws, the guard rails are off,” insisted Campaign for Southern Equality executive director Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara of Louisiana’s SAFE Act-style bill. GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis claimed that “Ohio’s extremist lawmakers inexplicably refused facts, expert testimony, and deeply personal pleas” by overriding the governor’s veto.
Despite the pressure and accusations of extremism, four state legislatures have overridden their governor’s vetoes in the past 12 months. On March 29, 2023, the Kentucky Senate (29-8) and House (76-23) voted to override Governor Andy Beshear’s (D) veto of a bill to protect minors from gender transition procedures, which also included protections for women’s sports and parental rights. On July 18, the Louisiana House (76-23) and Senate (28-11) voted to override then- Governor John Bel Edwards’s veto of the Stop Harming Our Kids Act, which told doctors to do just what the title said. On August 16, the North Carolina House (74-45) and Senate (27-18) voted to override Governor Roy Cooper’s (D) veto of that state’s bill to protect minors from gender transition procedures.
Then, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine (R) vetoed that state’s SAFE Act at the end of the year (December 29), the first Republican governor to oppose such a measure since Hutchinson in 2021. Almost immediately, nearly every other statewide official criticized the veto, and legislators in both chambers announced plans to override. The House overrode the veto 65-27 on January 10, and the Senate overrode the veto 24-8 on January 24, 2024.
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins extracted a lesson for governors from the veto override trend. “Given that five legislatures have overridden gubernatorial vetoes of legislation protecting minors from the transgender activists pushing experimental drugs and surgeries,” he remarked, “any governor who vetoes these SAFE Act-type laws is either politically tone-deaf or being influenced by those who profit from this morally devastating, but financially lucrative, industry.”
Another implication of the trend is that protecting minors from harmful, experimental gender transition procedures is not an “extremist” position, as its opponents keep on insisting. This is because of the role that executive vetoes play in America’s system of checks and balances.
In Federalist Paper 73, Alexander Hamilton explained that an executive veto “furnishes an additional security against the enaction of improper laws. It establishes a salutary check upon the legislative body, calculated to guard the community against the effects of faction, precipitancy, or of any impulse unfriendly to the public good, which may happen to influence a majority of that body.”
Hamilton was defending the veto power given to the U.S. president under the not-yet-ratified U.S. Constitution, but his reasoning is general enough to apply to gubernatorial vetoes against state legislation, too.
The “propriety” of a veto, Hamilton added, turns “upon the supposition that the legislature will not be infallible.” He articulated three general scenarios in which a veto could serve as a useful check. First, “the love of power may sometimes betray it into a disposition to encroach upon the rights of other members of the government.” Second, “a spirit of faction may sometimes pervert its deliberations.” Third, “impressions of the moment may sometimes hurry it into measures which itself, on maturer reflexion, would condemn.”
While the first scenario is not relevant to the SAFE Act debate, claims of “extremism” certainly suggest a “spirit of faction,” and they may also suggest the legislature itself would change its mind upon “maturer reflection.” The multiple vetoes issued against SAFE Acts provide case studies to see whether these applications prove true.
If the SAFE Acts were imprudent bills that legislatures passed too hastily, we would expect to find many legislators switching their votes during the veto override attempts, perhaps even enough that the bill would fail to reach whatever supermajority threshold was required. That is emphatically not what we find. The Arkansas bill lost one vote between its first passage and the veto override. The Kentucky bill lost one vote in the Senate but gained one in the House. The Louisiana bill lost one vote in the Senate, while four House members switched their votes two-and-two, canceling each other out. The North Carolina bill actually gained two votes, while the Ohio bill gained one.
Thus, after hundreds of legislators voted on these bills, and then voted on them again after they had been vetoed, the net effect was a change of one vote (excluding different vote totals caused by absent legislators). These five bills lost a total of five votes and gained a total of six votes between first passage and the veto override.
The other claim raised against the SAFE Act is that it is the product of an extremist faction — in this case, its detractors allege, having swept through nearly the entire Republican Party. This claim would be more plausible if all the legislators who voted for the SAFE Act were of the same party, but that is not what we find. In Louisiana, multiple Democrats in the Senate voted for the bill both on initial passage and in overriding the governor’s veto — a governor of their own party. In North Carolina, two House Democrats actually switched their votes during the veto override, to approve the bill against the wishes of their own party’s governor.
For that matter, the North Carolina legislature would not have even taken up a SAFE Act-style bill if not for the extremism of Democrats in the chamber. Earlier in the year, Representative Tricia Cotham had switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party because her fellow Democrats were bullying her over introducing a school choice bill. Her party switch gave the Republicans the supermajority they needed to advance legislation the governor would likely veto.
There is a tendency today to view things like veto power and legislative supermajorities as simply a matter of who has power to do what. Succumbing to that tendency would be a mistake, because it capitulates to a Marxist view of politics that sees everything through the lens of power dynamics. Sometimes, the usual political divisions break down, and government officials make decisions based upon what they believe is best for society, a certain group in society, or at least for their reelection chances. As noted above, some Democratic legislators voted for SAFE Act-style bills, while some Republican governors vetoed them. The veto even exerts a restraining influence in the far-Left, one-party state of California, where in September Governor Gavin Newsom (D) vetoed an anti-parent bill. The more statesmanlike use of the veto propounded by Hamilton may not always exert itself, but it still plays a role too large to dismiss.
An executive veto serves to “increase the chances in favor of the community against the passing of bad laws, through haste, inadvertence, or design,” said Hamilton. “The oftener the measure is brought under examination, the greater the diversity in the situations of those who are to examine it, the less must be the danger of those errors which flow from want of due deliberation, or of those missteps which proceed from the contagion of some common passion or interest.”
SAFE Act-style bills have now been considered a great many times across a great many states. In just a three-year span, nearly half of all U.S. state legislatures (23, to be exact) have seen fit to implement protections for minors suffering gender dysphoria, who lack the long-term vision and decision-making prudence to clearly see the harms of irreversible gender transition procedures. Each of those states conducted extensive hearings, featuring testimony from both sides of the debate, and were exposed to public input (including rather rude protests from the Left) on the bills’ potential merits and effects. There has been no lack of examination or due deliberation.
In almost every state, a supermajority of the legislature (often two-thirds, or even three-fourths) voted in favor of the measures. In five states, a supermajority enacted the bills of a governor’s veto. Such overwhelming support, almost by definition, implies that these bills enjoy support from more than just an “extremist” faction, notwithstanding the slanders of their detractors.
Joshua Arnold is a senior writer at The Washington Stand.