Anne Melia had been afraid to hope. She’d canvassed with the abortion rights group Kansans for Constitutional Freedom since May, urging residents to vote “no” on a ballot measure to amend the Kansas constitution to say it did not contain a right to an abortion.
She says she never “in a million years” thought Kansas voters would so strongly reject the constitutional amendment on Aug. 2, with 59% voting no and 41% voting yes, with 95% of votes counted on Wednesday.
“It’s going to send a resounding message to the rest of the country,” says Melia, 59. If deep-red Kansas says “okay: enough,” she says, “then maybe we can start to turn that tide back the other way.”
The vote was the first major win for abortion rights supporters since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade on June 24. Millions of dollars had poured into the race, with national groups focusing their energy on the state in the last weeks of the heated campaign. The outcome marks a concrete sign of public backlash to the Supreme Court’s decision, and it creates a potential roadmap for both Democrats running in November’s midterms and abortion-rights advocates who hope to use similar ballot measures to enshrine abortion rights in other state constitutions.
Registered Republicans greatly outnumber Democrats in Kansas, and the state consistently favors the GOP in presidential elections. But Kansas also has plenty of moderate and unaffiliated voters, and abortion rights supporters appealed to them in their outreach ahead of the primary. Voters in the increasingly Democratic areas like the Kansas City suburbs rejected the measure by huge margins, and in rural areas—the vast majority of the state—the vote was closer than either side expected. In urban and rural counties alike, the vote to protect abortion rights performed better than Joe Biden did against Donald Trump in 2020.
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Value Them Both, the group leading the effort to vote yes, said on Twitter, “This outcome is a temporary setback, and our dedicated fight to value women and babies is far from over.”
Tuesday’s results will impact more than just Kansans, allowing the state to remain an outpost of abortion access in the Midwest. With Roe gone, near-total abortion bans in neighboring states such as Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, and Arkansas are in effect, meaning growing numbers of people are driving hours to reach the handful of abortion clinics in Kansas.
Brenna Keener of Blue Springs, Mo., 24, was one of those women. She recently sought an abortion in Kansas and said she’d been watching the vote closely, apprehensive about what the loss of the right to an abortion in Kansas would mean for the region. “I didn’t know how it was going to go,” Keener tells TIME. “But I’m so glad that everyone got out and let their voice be heard. And that is something we will continue to do in the Kansas area.”
What it means for the midterms
Kansas’ resounding vote in favor of abortion rights is an early preview of how much the issue of abortion—which has historically motivated more voters on the anti-abortion side—could influence the midterm elections come November.
Tuesday’s amendment vote coincided with the state’s Republican and Democratic primaries—which many thought would put the “no” side at a disadvantage. Kansas Republicans typically turn out to primaries in higher numbers. Kansans also must be registered with a party to vote in a partisan primary, meaning that unaffiliated voters aren’t used to voting in primaries at all—and in Kansas that’s a sizable block. The state’s voters are 44% Republican, 26% Democratic and 29% unaffiliated.
But turnout on Tuesday was unusually high. 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. 70% 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.
“Tonight’s 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,” Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee President Jessica Post said in a statement. “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.”
Both sides focused on canvassing Johnson County, which is just southwest of Kansas City and the most populous county in Kansas. A collection of affluent suburbs with a high portion of unaffiliated voters, Johnson County is exactly the type of increasingly Democratic area that could hold the key to the fall’s midterm elections. Biden carried the county by eight points in 2020. On Tuesday, the “no” vote won by 36 points.
In a statement, Mallory Carroll, spokeswoman for the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, called Tuesday’s result a “huge disappointment for pro-life Kansans and Americans nationwide” and said the “stakes for the pro-life movement in the upcoming midterm elections could not be higher,” adding that there “will be many more factors in play.”
Those other factors, which include rampant inflation and a looming recession, could mean Tuesday’s results don’t necessarily preview as much for Democrats in November as progressives might hope, cautions Coleman. While Tuesday’s results demonstrated a sizable portion of Kansas voters—including Republicans and unaffiliated voters—support abortion rights, the midterms will be determined by how much voters prioritize abortion when casting their ballots. “Even if they disagree with Republican candidates on the issue,” Coleman says, “is it going to override their concerns about inflation or the economy?”
A roadmap for preserving access
Tuesday’s vote also highlights the key role that state constitutions will play in the nation’s abortion landscape going forward. Without a federal right to abortion, the procedure’s legality will largely be determined at the state level.
Abortion rights supporters said they saw their win on Tuesday as a sign that the Dobbs decision encouraged voters to go to the polls to protect abortion. “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,” Alexis McGill Johnson, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said in a statement. “From Michigan to Nevada, we have the opportunity to protect abortion access at the ballot box in November. We know that Kansas will not be our last fight, or our last victory.”
Read More: Meet the Pharmacist Expanding Access to Abortion Pills Across the U.S.
In states that quickly outlawed abortion after Dobbs, reproductive rights lawyers have launched litigation to challenge laws under state constitutions, arguing that those documents should be interpreted as protecting the right to abortion.
Before this year, four states had passed ballot measures amending their state constitutions to say they did not contain a right to abortion. Other states, like Kansas, had previously established that the state constitution protected abortion. The amendment dates back to a 2019 ruling from the Kansas Supreme Court that said the state’s constitution grants the right to “personal autonomy,” which it said includes whether to continue or end a pregnancy. By rejecting the proposed amendment on Tuesday, Kansas voters chose to maintain that ruling.
Voters will directly weigh in on abortion with other ballot measures this year. In Kentucky, they will consider an amendment similar to the one in Kansas, and in California and Vermont, voters will decide whether to add protections for abortion to their state constitution. Advocates also submitted more than 700,000 signatures to put a constitutional amendment protecting abortion rights on the ballot in Michigan this fall.
The ballot measures are a particular focus for abortion rights supporters, who hope to enshrine the right even in places where state legislators would like to restrict it. Kelly Hall, executive director of the Fairness Project, which is working with groups like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU on ballot measures in Michigan and Vermont, said the Kansas vote is proof of a strategy she has been working on for years. The Fairness Project has seen success supporting ballot measures on other issues including raising the minimum wage, expanding Medicaid and decriminalizing marijuana. “We have succeeded in using ballot measures on a much broader scale to advance issues that have previously been associated purely with the progressive end of the spectrum and in a lot of places that previously the Democratic Party or the left wing of the political spectrum have written off,” she says. “There’s no place we shouldn’t think strategically about using this tool to proactively protect reproductive freedom.”
If abortion rights can win on the ballot in Kansas, “it is advocacy inspiring,” Hall says. “I hope that it is also politically inspiring for folks to not run away from this issue, no matter what corner of the country they’re in.”
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