In a reliably conservative state, a state where then-President Donald Trump won in 2020 by 15 points over Joe Biden, an amendment that would deny women the right to an abortion under the state constitution was soundly defeated on Tuesday, delivering a striking victory to supporters of access.
Thedelivered an electric shock to conventional wisdom about the midterms and signaled abortion rights could be front and center as voters head to the polls in November.
The "Value Them Both" amendment that appeared on the Aug. 2 Kansas primary ballot would have removed the state constitutional right to an abortion in Kansas, paving the way for Republican lawmakers to pass legislation that could further restrict or even ban abortion in the state. It was the first time abortion rights were directly on the ballot since the Supreme Court overturned the landmark abortion law Roe v. Wade, leaving it up to states whether abortion would remain legal.
As it currently stands, 59% of Kansas voters cast a ballot to keep the right to an abortion constitutionally protected in the state, according to the preliminary results from the secretary of state's office. Only 41% voted to remove that constitutional protection.
"We really did build a coalition of partners that was broad and diverse and spanned the political spectrum," said Ashley All, a spokesperson for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, which led efforts to reject the amendment. Working with an array of organizations and local groups, they knocked on tens of thousands of doors and made hundreds of thousands of calls. She noted that they were able to engage on the issue in a nonpartisan conversation. "It comes down to a personal decision, and that also was key in our messaging."
While analysis of who showed up is underway, putting abortion on the ballot in Kansas resulted in a massive turnout of voters exceeding any other Kansas primary. The numbers more closely resembled that of a presidential election.
According to unofficial results, more than 908,000 people voted in the primary on the issue. Tens of thousands of people who weighed in on the amendment didn't even vote for other statewide offices or in congressional primaries.
Recent turnout in midterm and presidential primaries in the state have hovered around the 20-35% range. Turnout on Tuesday appeared to be closer to 50%. By comparison, only 457,598 voted in the 2018 midterm primary. The results Tuesday even beat out every single midterm general election turnout, apart from 2018 where just over 1 million Kansans voted.
It's even more significant when critics of the amendment accused Republican lawmakers of choosing to put the measure on the primary ballot with the assumption it would be more likely to pass with traditionally lower primary turnout.
While the Aug. 2 primary did not surpass the state's November 2020 presidential election turnout, where more than 1.3 million people voted, those voting against removing abortion rights did better than Joe Biden did in counties across the state – not just in cities and suburbs, but also in rural areas.
In 2020, Mr. Biden won just five of the 105 Kansas counties. On the abortion issue, those opposing the amendment — and favoring abortion rights — prevailed in 19 counties. In all five counties Mr. Biden won, voters against the amendment outperformed him by double digits. Majorities in counties including Sedgwick, which houses Wichita, and surrounding areas where Trump won, also voted no on the amendment. In some of the counties where Trump had his widest margins in 2020, those supporting the amendment – that is, opposing abortion rights — underperformed by double digits.
While turnout exploded for the primary, voter registration also surged ahead of the election following the overturning of Roe v. Wade, which left it to states to decide abortion access. Republicans have a massive registration advantage over Democrats in Kansas. There are more than 851,000 registered Republicans in the state compared to just over 495,000 Democrats. More than 560,000 voters are unaffiliated.
As part of the effort to defeat the amendment, organizers specifically worked to target moderate Republicans, particularly in the suburbs, to help build their winning coalition.
At the same time, following the decision in, voter registrations also surged in the state. Vote.org reported a more than 960% increase in individuals starting the voter registration process through the organization's website from the two weeks before the court's June 24 decision.
"When you have an election where almost a million people vote, new registrants in the last month aren't by themselves going to have decisive effect," said Tom Bonier, CEO of TargetSmart, a political data firm. "But the reason why I think it's relevant is it gives us a sense of where the intensity lies, who was actually engaged by this election."
Bonier found that women accounted for 70% of all new registered voters in the state since June 24, a number he has never seen before. When he looked at the 2020 election, he found the registrations based on gender were pretty evenly split. "It just doesn't happen," Bonier said.
Data from the Kansas secretary of state's office showed Democrats had a greater number of voters registering than Republicans surrounding the June 24 decision. Even more registered as unaffiliated voters.
Engaging with unaffiliated voters was a critical part of the strategy for those fighting against the amendment.
The group Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, was founded especially for the abortion vote, and its approach has, from the outset, looked beyond traditional liberal voters. Ccampaign manager Rachel Sweet said, "I think there's a lot more data that comes out about what exactly the KCF voting coalition looked like, but we decided to communicate with unaffiliated voters just like we would any other voter in the state."
The coalition believes the outcome of the vote is unique for multiple reasons. But it plans to continue the fight to protect abortion access in Kansas. Members of the group have also already been talking with like-minded organizations in other states where abortion measures are on the ballot.
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