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pro-choice campaigners in Kansas prepare to knock on doors

Jeri Swinton of Vote No on the Constitutional Amendment on Abortion is given her route by organizer Jae Gray at the Johnson County Democratic Office on August 1, 2022 in Overland Park, Kansas. (Photo: Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)

After Kansas Win, Abortion Rights Advocates Call Ballot Measures the 'Next Frontier'

"Ballot initiatives are a phenomenally powerful tool when there's a disconnect between the popularity of an issue and what's being enacted by politicians," said Kelly Hall of the Fairness Project.

Jessica Corbett

Following an "enormous" win in Kansas this week, reproductive freedom advocates see ballot measures as a tool to protect—and potentially even expand—abortion rights under attack by anti-choice policymakers.

"We know that Kansas will not be our last fight, or our last victory."

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's reversal of Roe v. Wade this summer, 59% of Kansas voters on Tuesday said "no" to amending the state constitution and clearing the way for more abortion restrictions, including a ban.

"Kansans' victory this week over extremist state legislators showed us plainly: Ballot measures are the next frontier for protecting access to abortion care," said Kelly Hall, executive director of the Fairness Project, which backs progressive ballot initiatives, in a statement Friday.

Hall stressed that "we should not be writing off any state when it comes to using every tool at our disposal to ensure reproductive freedom. That includes empowering voters through citizen-initiated ballot measures."

"It is essential that people can use the ballot measure tool to preserve the right to safe and legal access to abortion within their state," she continued. "That's why, in addition to our ongoing work to pass constitutional protections for abortion rights, we're doubling down on our Ballot Measure Rescue Campaign to fend off attacks on direct democracy."

The results in Kansas boosted hopes among Democratic elected officials—including President Joe Biden—that a desire to protect reproductive rights will drive voters to the ballot box, as Republicans are working to take back control of Congress in November.

While the high court overturning Roe has fueled calls for congressional action, given that a few right-wing Democratic senators oppose filibuster reform and most GOP lawmakers oppose abortion rights, sending federal pro-choice legislation to Biden's desk will likely require expanding Democrats' numbers in the Senate.

"The enthusiasm gap—which normally favors the party out of power—is now closing, and there was no greater example of that than in Kansas," Patrick Gaspard, CEO of the Democrat-aligned Center for American Progress Action Fund, told reporters Wednesday. "This could be a signal for what's to come."

Time explained that Kansas' results on Tuesday defied expectations that amendment opponents would be at a disadvantage because the vote aligned with primaries in which Kansans could only participate if they were registered with a party—meaning that unlike the state's 44% of Republicans and 26% of Democrats, its 29% of unaffiliated voters "aren't used to voting in primaries at all."

Noting the "unusually high turnout" in Kansas, Time reported:

At least 908,700 people voted on the ballot measure, compared to the roughly 456,000 people who turned out for the 2018 primaries, according to the Kansas secretary of state's office. The increase in voter turnout can be directly traced to the Supreme Court's decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization on June 24. That day, voter registration surged 1,000%, and among people who registered on or after June 24, Democrats held an eight-point advantage, according to Tom Bonier, CEO of political data firm TargetSmart. Seventy percent of those voters who registered on or after June 24 were women.

The results may also provide a hint about how many Republicans may disagree with their party leaders on abortion: a sizable portion of the at least 534,000 "no" votes on the ballot initiative likely came from Republicans, says Miles Coleman, the associate editor of the election forecaster 'Sabato's Crystal Ball' at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

"Anti-abortion politicians put this amendment on the primary ballot with the goal of low voter turnout, but they discounted Kansans, who said loud and clear they believe and trust patients to make their own medical decisions—especially during a dark moment in history when people across the Midwest and South are not afforded that same freedom," declared Emily Wales, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes.

"This historic victory was the result of a groundswell of grassroots support and a broad coalition of reasonable, thoughtful Kansans across the state who put healthcare over politics," she added. "We have seen the devastation caused by a loss of access to abortion in neighboring states and… Kansans saw through the deception of anti-abortion interests to ensure people in their state retained their rights. Now, more than ever, our work continues."

"Kansans' rejection of the GOP's amendment underscores this growing backlash against Republican attacks on reproductive freedom."

Alexis McGill Johnson, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, suggested that "as the first state to vote on abortion rights following the fall of Roe v. Wade, Kansas is a model for a path to restoring reproductive rights across the country through direct democracy."

"From Michigan to Nevada, we have the opportunity to protect abortion access at the ballot box in November," she pointed out. "We know that Kansas will not be our last fight, or our last victory."

Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee president Jessica Post also took the results in Kansas as a signal of what could happen later this year.

The "vote in a traditionally red state resoundingly shows that Republicans are extremely out of touch on the issue of abortion—even with their own base of voters," Post said. "Kansans' rejection of the GOP's amendment underscores this growing backlash against Republican attacks on reproductive freedom and is just a glimpse of what is waiting for them this fall."

More Perfect Union on Friday outlined some of the state ballot measures voters will soon face:

  • 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 19th noted last month that "abortion-related ballot measures, whether as a proposal by a state legislature or a citizen-led initiative, have historically been led by anti-abortion lawmakers and groups. That may begin to shift: The ballot measures in California and Vermont, and possibly Michigan, represent the first time that voters will consider constitutional protections to abortion access."

Hall of the Fairness Project told Politico earlier this week that "ballot initiatives are a phenomenally powerful tool when there's a disconnect between the popularity of an issue and what's being enacted by politicians. And every poll in the country shows that disconnect when it comes to abortion rights.

"This is really the next frontier," she said, "and already advocates are starting to think about the pathways for 2023 and 2024."

Although not all U.S. states allow citizen-led efforts to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, many that do are "right on the frontlines of the battle for reproductive freedom," Hall added. "No matter where you live, there is hope on the horizon."

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