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Kansans reject an effort to end state’s right to abortion

Overwhelming vote could be bellwether for other votes to come

Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kan., at the Kansas for Constitutional Freedom pro-abortion rights party in Overland Park, Kan., on Tuesday. Voters preserved the state's constitutional right to an abortion in a referendum.
Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kan., at the Kansas for Constitutional Freedom pro-abortion rights party in Overland Park, Kan., on Tuesday. Voters preserved the state's constitutional right to an abortion in a referendum. (Dave Kaup/AFP via Getty Images)

Kansas voters rejected a constitutional amendment on Tuesday that would explicitly add language to the state constitution stating that abortion is not a protected right.

The win for abortion rights advocates could be an early bellwether for how abortion will fare in other elections in November. The vote is the first of at least four on abortion this year, after the Supreme Court in June overturned the constitutional right to an abortion provided by the Roe v. Wade decision almost 50 years ago. 

For Alysha Campbell, the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization was a wakeup call. Campbell, 22, has lived in Manhattan, Kan., for nine years, and grew up under the influence of the Church of the Nazarene, a form of evangelicalism she describes as fairly strict.

“I remember I got scared once I figured out Roe v. Wade was overturned because it’s a bigger issue than just, like, abortion,” she said. “I remember when I was trying to figure out which side I was actually going to vote for, it was really hard to figure out, like, what to read.”

Prior to the Kansas vote, Campbell said she talked to people she trusted about what the amendment would actually mean to decipher the language.

“They’re kind of fighting their narrative and not giving you the whole situation, which is frustrating, because that’s something I grew up with, is people just preaching their narrative,” she said.

Nationwide, 54 percent of voters say the Supreme Court’s decision has made them “more likely” to consider a candidate’s position on abortion in the midterms, according to a new KFF health tracking poll. 

KFF found that large majorities of Democrats, Democratic women and women under 50 say the Dobbs decision has increased the likelihood of considering a candidate’s position. Voters still consider inflation and gas prices to be their top midterms issue, and 42 percent have said the decision has not made a difference, the KFF poll found.

Both sides of the abortion debate said Kansas wouldn’t be an indicator of other states’ votes, but the debate has garnered national attention and money. Outside groups have funneled millions in spending both in favor and against the amendment ahead of the vote scheduled during the state’s primary election. 

The top spenders, according to Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission expenditure data posted July 18, were Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, spending $5.8 million against the amendment, and Value Them Both, a coalition spending $5.4 million in favor of it.

Fifty-nine percent of voters opted against the amendment, with all precincts reporting on Wednesday morning.

Polling in July by Co/efficient suggested the vote could be close, with 47 percent of likely primary voters in favor, 43 percent against and 10 percent still undecided.

Initiatives held during nonpresidential-year primaries generally have lower turnout, a reality that can be used in choosing when to put it on the ballot. But Kansas turnout Tuesday was higher than usual, with the state reporting 908,745 votes overall on the amendment, almost twice as high as the number of voters in the gubernatorial primary in 2018, when fewer than 470,000 voted. 

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly faces a tough race in November against the state’s Republican attorney general, Derek Schmidt, who supported the amendment. 

Kansas now blocks abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, prohibits telemedicine abortions, and requires a 24-hour waiting period after consenting to the procedure. But lawmakers have been unable to implement additional state restrictions since the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that the state constitution protects the right to an abortion. 

That roadblock led conservative advocates to push to change language in the state constitution to enable future changes to abortion policy.

Constitutional changes are also more difficult to undo or modify by state lawmakers or a governor who opposes the policy.

Setting the stage

The fight to implement additional bans or protect abortion rights has revved up since the Dobbs decision.

Kansans for Constitutional Freedom said it has seen an increase in moderate voters who have gotten involved with its campaign since the decision, and has reached out to find common ground with moderate Republicans, rural conservatives in favor of small government, and clergy. 

“The decision to overturn Roe did, I think, cause a significant increase in awareness and attention and engagement here. It really was a wake up call. I think for a lot of Americans, but also a lot of Kansans, specifically, people who maybe tend to sit on the sidelines on some of these issues,” said Ashley All, the group’s spokesperson.

Volunteers made 370,000 calls to voters prior to the election.

“Abortion is already heavily regulated here. Voting ‘no’ basically maintains those regulations and maintains our constitutional rights to bodily autonomy and the right to make choices about abortion. That is one of the sources of all the disinformation on the other side,” she said prior to the vote.

But supporters of the amendment such as Value Them Both said it would restore the ability of the state legislature to pass laws related to abortion, especially in light of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision

The coalition is spearheaded by Kansas Family Voice, Kansans for Life, and the Kansas Catholic Conference, and did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, a national group that advocates against abortion and invests heavily in candidates and issues related to opposing abortion, announced an initial investment of $1.3 million in July and said it canvassed 250,000 homes before the primary.

“Our goal now that we’re in this new Dobbs era, is to pass the most ambitious protections for life for children in each legislature, state and federal, and recognizing that consensus is going to look different from state to state,” said Mallory Carroll, vice president of communications for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. “The makeup of each state and the political and policy environments in each place are so different. I don’t think that it’s necessarily going to be an indicator one way or the other.”

Kansas is not the first state that has seen a referendum on abortion policy.

Abortion opponents successfully passed constitutional amendments in Louisiana in 2020, and in Alabama and West Virginia in 2018.

Coloradans voted against a fetal personhood amendment in 2014 and a 22-week abortion ban in 2020. And both Florida and Oregon rejected amendments to ban public funding for abortion, in 2012 and 2018, respectively. 

More votes are scheduled.

California and Vermont will vote on including language to protect reproductive freedom in their state constitutions. Montana voters will decide if the state should add legal protections for “any infant born alive following an abortion.” Michigan is expected to hold a vote on whether to amend the state constitution to include the right to reproductive freedom.

Reproductive Freedom For All, the coalition in support of the Michigan amendment, turned in 753,759 signatures, and will need at least 425,059 verified to be on the ballot, said Ashlea Phenicie, communications director for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan. The State Bureau of Elections has to certify the signatures by Sept. 9.

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