TOPEKA, Kan. -- Abortion opponents were shocked and abortion rights advocates energized by a decisive statewide vote in heavily Republican Kansas this week in favor of protecting abortion access, yet it's not likely to translate into new abortion votes across the U.S. in the November election.
Four other states — California, Kentucky, Michigan and Vermont — could have votes in November on abortion access, and a fifth, Montana, is voting on a measure that would require abortion providers to give lifesaving treatment to a fetus that is born alive after a botched abortion. Opponents argue federal law already offers those protections. No other abortion initiatives are likely to make a state's November ballot.
The Kansas vote was the first test of public feeling about abortion rights since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in late June, and it upended political assumptions.
Voters rejected a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution declaring that it grants no right to abortion. That would have opened the door for the GOP-controlled Legislature to further restrict or ban abortion and nullify a 2019 decision by the Kansas Supreme Court that access is a “fundamental” right under the state's Bill of Rights.
HOW WAS THE OUTCOME OF THE KANSAS VOTE A SURPRISE?
Abortion rights supporters prevailed by nearly 18 percentage points in the Republican state with deep ties to the anti-abortion movement. They took the outcome as confirmation that preserving access to abortion is popular.
Officials with several national abortion rights groups argued that the vote shows it’s a mistake for Democrats in red states like Kansas to avoid talking about abortion and that support for abortion rights can drive voters to the polls. In Kentucky, donations to the abortion rights cause poured in immediately, said Tamarra Wieder, state director for Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates.
The election in Kansas coincided with the state’s primary. Over the previous 10 years, turnout for a mid-term primary has averaged less than 26%, with Republicans casting twice as many ballots as Democrats.
But turnout for this election topped 45% — almost 915,000 voters — approaching levels normally seen during a fall election for governor. More than half of registered Democrats and Republicans cast ballots. At least 28% of registered unaffiliated voters, who couldn’t vote on anything else on ballots on Tuesday, voted on the proposed amendment.
The outcome also suggested that a sizeable number of Republicans voted against the proposed amendment.
“Three things in Kansas are really important to note: One, the depth of the victory; two, the amount of increased voter turnout, and three, that it happened in an off-year midterm election,” said Kristen Rowe-Finkbeiner, CEO of MomsRising, an advocacy group that supports abortion rights.
Abortion opponents argued that the vote was a temporary setback and vowed to keep electing anti-abortion candidates.
CAN EITHER SIDE RUSH TO PUT A QUESTION TO VOTERS IN MY STATE IN NOVEMBER?
Likely not. For one thing, deadlines to do it have passed in the half of U.S. states that allow voters to put questions on the ballot without going through the Legislature.
In Ohio, the Democratic nominee for governor, Nan Whaley, has called for putting an abortion rights measure on the ballot as early as next year, and efforts have started in Colorado and South Dakota for 2024. In Iowa, GOP lawmakers have taken the first step toward putting an anti-abortion measure on the ballot in 2024.
In Kansas, anti-abortion lawmakers anticipated voters approving their measure.
BUT THERE ARE VOTES IN SOME STATES IN NOVEMBER?
Yes, but those efforts were all underway before the Kansas vote.
Legislators in California and Vermont put measures to protect abortion rights on the ballot, and Kentucky lawmakers have a measure on the ballot similar to the one that failed in Kansas.
In Michigan, abortion rights advocates believe they have turned in enough signatures to put an abortion rights amendment to the state constitution on the November ballot, but the signatures must still be counted.
The Montana referendum also was initiated by legislators.
IN STATES ALLOWING IT, WHAT DOES IT TAKE FOR VOTERS TO GET A QUESTION ON THE BALLOT?
They have to circulate petitions and collect tens of thousands of signatures from registered voters; the number is often a percentage of the vote in a previous election. Some states set requirements to get signatures from across the state, not just in one or two metropolitan areas.
In Nebraska, abortion opponents are focused on gaining one more seat in its one-house Legislature for the two-thirds majority necessary to overcome filibusters and pass an abortion ban. A voter initiative there must gather nearly 88,000 signatures from at least 5% of the registered voters in 38 of its 93 counties, something known as the “two-fifths rule.”
In Missouri, initiatives can take a year to get to the ballot, and in Oklahoma, the average length has been more than a year — 64 weeks — over the past 10 years, according to the secretary of state's office.
“From start to finish, if you could get it done in nine months, you’d really be moving fast," said Amber England, a political strategist in Oklahoma who has worked to get questions on the ballot in recent years.
The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which advises progressive groups on campaigning for ballot questions, advises that the work should take three years, including building community relationships before even circulating signatures.
SO IT'S A MATTER OF GETTING ENOUGH VALID SIGNATURES IN THE RIGHT PLACES?
Not necessarily. There can be other hurdles, particularly if public officials who are players in the process oppose an initiative.
In Missouri in 2019, opponents of a law banning most abortions after eight weeks of pregnancy sought to get a proposed repeal on the ballot, but Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a Republican who opposes abortion, took enough time in vetting the language that supporters had only two weeks to gather signatures. While the initiative's backers sued — and won — the final ruling from the state Supreme Court didn't come until early this year.
“It was a significant victory,” said Mallory Schwarz, executive director of Pro-Choice Missouri. “But we didn’t get a do-over.”
Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas. Also contributing were Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City, Scott McFetridge in Des Moines, Iowa, and Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio.
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