Reproductive rights advocates won a massive victory on Tuesday, as Kansas voters surged to the polls to defeat a ballot referendum that would have removed the right to abortion from the state constitution. The anti-abortion amendment — the first of its kind in the post-Roe v. Wade era — proved to be a powerful motivating issue in the red state, driving record-breaking voter turnout that approached a level of participation usually seen in presidential elections.
Nearly 60 percent voted to maintain abortion protections, compared to the 41 percent who voted to eliminate the right to abortion, with roughly 99 percent of the expected vote reporting.
Over 900,000 Kansans voted on the issue of abortion rights — nearly twice the number of voters who turned out in the state’s 2018 primary election. Midterm primaries are notorious for being low turnout events, and many of the states that have already held primary elections followed this pattern. With abortion on the ballot, more Kansans voted in this week’s primary than in the state’s 2010 and 2014 general elections. Secretary of State Scott Schwab’s office had previously predicted turnout would be around 36 percent. When the results started coming in, Schwab said, it was actually “looking a lot like” the turnout for Barack Obama in 2008.
In Kansas, registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 350,000, according to the latest numbers from the Secretary of State’s office. Republicans hold a supermajority in the state legislature, which gives lawmakers the ability to potentially override a veto from the Democratic governor. The last time the state voted for a Democrat in a presidential race was over half a century ago, when it went for Lyndon Johnson. Despite the structural disadvantages, and an aggressive campaign led by anti-choice groups, reproductive justice advocates won in a landslide and even overshadowed other major statewide contests. Roughly 70 percent of Kansans who registered to vote after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision were women, according to an analysis from Tom Bonier, CEO of political data firm TargetSmart.
Fourteen of the 19 counties Trump won in the 2020 presidential election ended up voting against the amendment. Osage County, where Trump won 71 percent of the vote, saw 56 percent of its voters join the defense of abortion rights. There were also bigger swings toward a “no” vote in rural areas, like Franklin and Lyon counties, than there were in urban regions.
“By safeguarding abortion access, Kansas voters aligned with the 8 in 10 Americans who support the legal right to abortion,” NARAL Pro-Choice America President Mini Timmaraju said in a statement. “In the heartland of the United States, protecting abortion access is galvanizing voters like never before, and that mobilization is only just beginning.”
Abortion rights advocates say the victory in Kansas provides a road map for defending reproductive rights in states like Kentucky, Montana, Michigan, California, and Vermont. Here’s what will be on each of those states’ ballot measures:
- Kentucky: Kentucky will have a ballot measure similar to the one in Kansas, asking voters to amend the constitution to ban abortion. A near-total abortion ban went into effect immediately after the Supreme Court decision.
- Montana: The anti-choice ballot measure asks voters to approve a proposal stating all infants who are “born alive” after an “abortion attempt” have a right to medical care. The measure would establish a $50,000 fine and possible 20-year prison sentence for breaking the law.
- Michigan: Abortion rights supporters recently turned in a record number of signatures for a proposed initiative. If certified and formally approved, the ballot measure would let voters add protections for abortion and other reproductive health services into the state constitution.
- California: Voters will decide in November whether to create explicit constitutional rights to abortion and contraception. The initiative would prohibit the state from denying or interfering with “an individual’s reproductive freedom in their most intimate decisions.”
- Vermont: The Vermont ballot measure is similar to California’s, asking voters to enshrine the “right to personal reproductive autonomy” in state law.
The wording of the Kansas abortion measure was intentionally confusing, and written in a way to mislead voters on what it would actually mean to vote for or against the measure. It suggested that a “yes” vote would prohibit the taxpayer funding of abortions (which is already the case) or allow certain exceptions to an abortion ban. Just a day before Kansans were set to vote on the ballot measure, a Republican-linked firm sent out a text message that said “Vote YES to protect women’s health” to try to trick voters into approving the proposal, as the Washington Post reported.
Though the surge in voter turnout surprised political observers, the election results were also consistent with what we’ve known for years about the issue. The politics can get complex, but polling has shown time and time again that most Americans support access to abortion. A recent survey from the Pew Research Center found that 62 percent of the public believes abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Similar attempts to ban abortion via ballot initiative have also been shot down in states like South Dakota and Colorado.
Democrats are facing an uphill battle heading into this year’s elections, from Biden’s middling popularity to the fact that the sitting president’s party almost always experiences sweeping losses in the midterms. In the wake of the Kansas primary, activists and progressives are urging the party to reconsider its strategy. The fight for abortion rights may not be able to stop a wave election on its own. But the Kansas referendum provides insight into how the issue could impact candidates and races come November, or at the very least, how the party can mobilize voters ahead of the abortion-related measures coming up in at least four other states.