Kansas voters protect abortion rights, block path to ban
photo by: AP/KCTV 5/Angie Ricono
Story updated at 10:33 p.m. Tuesday:
TOPEKA — Kansas voters on Tuesday protected the right to get an abortion in the state, rejecting a measure that would have allowed the Republican-controlled Legislature to tighten abortion restrictions or ban it outright.
The referendum in the conservative state was the first test of U.S. voter sentiment about abortion rights since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June. It was a major victory for abortion rights advocates following weeks in which many states in the South and Midwest largely banned abortion.
Abortion rights advocates liked what they saw as Election Day unfolded in Kansas.
“I’ve definitely never seen that many people under the age of 40 voting that early in the morning,” Melinda Lavon, chair of the Vote No Kansas PAC, said of her Tuesday morning trip to a Lawrence voting precinct.
She said the numbers show voters from both urban and rural areas turned out in strong numbers to vote against the amendment that would have removed any constitutional right to an abortion in the state.
“I think it sends the message that everyday Kansans agree on a lot of things — we just don’t always vote,” she said.
photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World
They did on Tuesday, and in the weeks leading up to the election through advance ballots.
With nearly 80% of the vote counted statewide at about 10:15 p.m. on Tuesday, about 61% of voters had voted against the amendment, while 39% had voted for it.
The amendment would have added language stating that the constitution does not protect the right to abortion. A 2019 state Supreme Court decision declared that access to abortion is a “fundamental” right under the state’s Bill of Rights, preventing a ban and potentially thwarting legislative efforts to enact new restrictions.
The referendum was closely watched as a barometer of liberal and moderate voters’ anger over the June ruling scrapping the nationwide right to abortion. The measure’s failure also was significant because of how conservative Kansas is and how twice as many Republicans as Democrats have voted in its August primaries in the decade leading up to Tuesday night’s tilt.
photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World
In Lawrence, at a watch party hosted by the Vote No Kansas PAC, Lawrence resident Barry Shalinsky said he believed the Vote Yes supporters had run a campaign that left too many voters questioning the veracity of their claims, including whether the amendment would ultimately lead to severe restrictions or bans on abortion procedures in the state.
“Ultimately, people saw through that, and it really hurt their cause,” Shalinsky said. “It just didn’t sound credible to people. Kansans are down-to-earth, pragmatic, fair-minded people, and that came through big time in this election.”
In the Kansas City area, Kristy Winter, 52, an unaffiliated voter, voted against the measure and brought her 16-year-old daughter with her to her polling place.
“I want her to have the same right to do what she feels is necessary, mostly in the case of rape or incest,” she said. “I want her to have the same rights my mother has had most of her life.”
Opponents of the measure predicted that the anti-abortion groups and lawmakers behind the measure would push quickly for an abortion ban if voters approved it. Before the vote, the measure’s supporters refused to say whether they would pursue a ban as they appealed to voters who supported both some restrictions and some access to abortion.
Stephanie Kostreva, a 40-year-old school nurse from the Kansas City area and a Democrat, said she voted in favor of the measure because she is a Christian and believes life begins at conception.
“I’m not full scale that there should never be an abortion,” she said. “I know there are medical emergencies, and when the mother’s life is in danger there is no reason for two people to die.”
An anonymous group sent a misleading text Monday to Kansas voters telling them to “vote yes” to protect choice, but it was suspended late Monday from the Twilio messaging platform it was using, a spokesperson said. Twilio did not identify the sender.
The 2019 Kansas Supreme Court decision protecting abortion rights blocked a law that banned the most common second-trimester procedure, and another law imposing special health regulations on abortion providers also is on hold. Abortion opponents argued that all of the state’s existing restrictions were in danger, though some legal scholars found that argument dubious. Kansas doesn’t ban most abortions until the 22nd week of pregnancy.
Backers of the measure began with an advantage because anti-abortion lawmakers set the vote for primary election day, when for the past 10 years Republicans have cast twice as many ballots as Democrats. But the early-voting electorate was more Democratic than usual.
The Kansas vote is the start of what could be a long-running series of legal battles playing out where lawmakers are more conservative on abortion than governors or state courts. Kentucky will vote in November on whether to add language similar to the Kansas proposal to its state constitution.
Meanwhile, Vermont will decide in November whether to add an abortion rights provision to its constitution. A similar question is likely headed to the November ballot in Michigan.
In Kansas, both sides together spent more than $14 million on their campaigns. Abortion providers and abortion rights groups were key donors to the “no” side, while Catholic dioceses heavily funded the “yes” campaign.
The state has had strong anti-abortion majorities in its Legislature for 30 years, but voters have regularly elected Democratic governors, including Laura Kelly in 2018. She opposed the proposed amendment, saying changing the state constitution would “throw the state back into the Dark Ages.”
State Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican hoping to unseat Kelly, supported the proposed constitutional amendment. He told the Catholic television network EWTN before the election that “there’s still room for progress” in decreasing abortions, without spelling out what he would sign as governor.
Although abortion opponents pushed almost annually for new restrictions until the 2019 state Supreme Court ruling, they felt constrained by past court rulings and Democratic governors like Kelly.
Late Tuesday evening, the Value Them Both coalition that had supported the amendment issued a statement acknowledging the amendment had been defeated.
“This outcome is a temporary setback, and our dedicated fight to value women and babies is far from over,” the group said via written statement. “As our state becomes a abortion destination, it will be even more important for Kansans to support our pregnancy resource centers, post-abortive ministries, and other organizations that provide supportive care to women facing unexpected pregnancies. We will be back.”
— Journal-World Editor Chad Lawhorn contributed to this report.