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Abortion rights supporters and opponents look for lessons from the Kansas vote

Supporters of a constitutional amendment about abortion in Kansas remove signs ahead of Tuesday's vote.
Kyle Rivas
/
Getty Images
Supporters of a constitutional amendment about abortion in Kansas remove signs ahead of Tuesday's vote.

On Tuesday night as results rolled in for Kansas's consequential vote on abortion rights, advocates on both sides of the abortion debate were watching closely, looking for lessons as they prepare for similar votes on abortion rights measures this fall.

The results in Kansas — the nation's first statewide vote on abortion rights after Roe v. Wade was overturned in June — has upended traditional wisdom about the politics of abortion. In a Republican-leaning state that preferred President Donald Trump by 15 points in 2020, the outcome was a landslide that few expected: Nearly 60% of voters chose to support abortion rights.

Among the states with ballot measures scheduled for November is Kentucky, where voters will consider a constitutional amendment similar to the one that failed in Kansas.

Supporters of abortion rights there have been "energized" by Tuesday's results, said Samuel Crankshaw of the ACLU of Kentucky, which opposes the proposed amendment. "We're in a lucky position where we can learn from allies in other states at this point," he said.

Addia Wuchner, executive director of the Kentucky Right to Life Association, watched the election results at home in her office, she said. She called the result "heartbreaking."

With fewer than 100 days to go until the election, her coalition is whirring up its messaging, fundraising and training efforts. They are bracing for the national spotlight — and the concurrent firehose of outside money — to turn to Kentucky.

Kentucky is more conservative than Kansas — it went for Trump by 26 points — but some dynamics are similar, with a small number of blue counties set in a sea of red. But the margin of victory for abortion rights supporters in Kansas was so large that it has sparked concern in Wuchner's group and others.

"We're just now analyzing to see what we can learn," she said.

Measures in three other states

In addition to Kentucky, ballot measures on abortion rights will appear in two blue states, California and Vermont. Another is expected in Michigan, where abortion rights supporters recently turned in a record number of signatures for a proposed amendment.

A poll by the Pew Research Center conducted last month found that 62% of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

The results in Kansas showed a 10- to 15-point swing in many counties from the 2020 presidential election results to Tuesday's vote, suggesting that abortion is an issue that can defy partisan lines.

"The results in Kansas are reflective of what we're seeing nationwide and here in Michigan: Voters are energized and motivated to fight back to protect their health and rights following the elimination of the federal constitutional right to abortion," said Ashlea Phenicie, a spokesperson at Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, one of the groups supporting the Michigan ballot measure.

An empty Planned Parenthood location in Kentucky, where a court this week reinstated a near-total ban on abortion.
Jon Cherry / Getty Images
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Getty Images
An empty Planned Parenthood location in Kentucky, where a court this week reinstated a near-total ban on abortion.

Crafting messages for different electorates

Campaign tactics that work in Kansas may not be right for a swing state like Michigan or Florida, said Rachel Rebouche, a professor of reproductive and family law at Temple University.

"What voters will respond to will depend on where they are, will depend on the culture they find themselves in," she said in an interview with NPR.

In Kansas, the pro-abortion rights campaign found success in messages about autonomy and government overreach. (One TV ad paired the words "government mandate" with a photograph of a sign asking business customers to wear face masks.) Many of its mailers and advertisements avoided the word "abortion" altogether.

"It really wove together a set of messages around consequences, but also appealing to what the campaign believed Kansas voters would respond to," said Rebouche.

Other advertisements in Kansas framed the proposed amendment as too extreme for Kansans, pointing to language that would have allowed legislators to pass abortion restrictions, "including, but not limited to, laws that account for circumstances" of rape, incest or in which a mother's life is endangered.

More noise to cut through in November

That language "may have been a factor" in the measure's failure, said Wuchner of Kentucky Right to Life, who called the wording "confusing."

"The people aren't used to having to debate all the matters of fact that legislators are. And it may have just been a little bit too much wording," she said. That may have opened the door for the amendment's opponents to "scaremonger and fearmonger," she added.

Kentucky's ballot measure is simpler. It would amend the state's constitution to read: "To protect human life, nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to secure or protect a right to abortion or require the funding of abortion."

By contrast, the proposed amendment in Michigan — which would add protection for abortion rights to the state constitution, rather than remove them like in Kansas or Kentucky — is much more complicated, clocking in at more than 300 words. (Even though the measure is not yet officially on the ballot, its language already has come under criticism from abortion rights opponents.)

Another variable could be the broader range of choices facing voters in November. In Kansas, only voters registered with a specific party may vote in that party's primary, meaning that any unaffiliated voter cast a ballot on Tuesday that included only the abortion question.

In November, voters will be weighing other races too, choosing between candidates with positions on a variety of issues. That could drive turnout based on different issues — including inflation, which is named by Republican voters as a "very important" issue much more often than abortion, according to new polls by YouGov and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

"No matter what, we're going to treat it like an uphill battle, because we need to give every effort and every resource we have to defeat this amendment," said Crankshaw of the ACLU of Kentucky.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.