Fight over Kansas abortion amendment propels avalanche of votes

Kansas voters turned out in unforeseen numbers to participate in an intense fight over abortion rights marked by expensive campaigns to educate and influence voters, dubious claims, and the unraveling of protections by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The question before voters, in the form of a confusingly worded constitutional amendment, was whether to end the right to abortion in Kansas by voting “yes” or preserve the right by voting “no.”

The outcome could have far-reaching implications for politics and reproductive health care in the state, where six girls younger than 14 were among nearly 8,000 patients who received an abortion last year.

State election officials predicted a turnout of 36% for the primary, but said at 7 p.m. that turnout could be closer to 50% for the state’s 1.95 million registered voters. Turnout is typically low for a primary election, in which Democrats rarely have competitive races and unaffiliated voters typically can’t participate. This year, they can vote on the amendment.

Ashley All, spokeswoman for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, which opposes the amendment, said she was encouraged to see more people voting.

“I am hopeful that most of those people will vote no,” All said. “Either way, I think it’s healthy for democracy when more people vote, and in this particular situation the effort was to put it on the primary ballot when fewer people tend to vote. In fact, half as many people usually vote in the primary, and so for me, it’s encouraging to see more people voting.”

The Secretary of State’s Office said there were 298,000 advance ballots turned in by election day. A turnout of 50% would far exceed the 636,032 ballots cast in the 2020 primary or 487,598 four years ago.

The proposed constitutional amendment is a reaction to a 2019 decision by the Kansas Supreme Court, which struck down a state law banning a common second-term abortion procedure. The court determined the right to bodily autonomy in the state constitution’s Bill of Rights includes the decision to terminate a pregnancy.

That meant abortion remained legal in Kansas when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, allowing each state to determine its own rules for reproductive health care. Kansas has attracted national attention as the first state to vote on abortion rights in the post-Roe world.
“You know,” said Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, a Lenexa Democrat, “you go back to William Allen White: ‘If something is going to happen, it’s going to happen in Kansas first.’ A lot of friends from across the country are like, ‘Why is this on a primary ballot?’ So I think they’re paying attention to really some cynical tactics that the other side tried to play to their advantage.”

Passage of the constitutional amendment would nullify the Kansas Supreme Court ruling and give the Legislature the authority to pass any kind of abortion restriction, without exceptions for rape, incest or a patient’s health. If the amendment fails, abortion would continue to be legal — and heavily regulated — in Kansas.

Supporters and opponents of the amendment spent millions of dollars in campaigns to educate and influence voters.

A “vote yes” flyer lies Tuesday in the parking lot outside the Sunrise Optimist Club, a voting location north of Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The so-called Value Them Both Coalition has refused to say whether it would support a ban on abortion if the amendment passes, routinely denouncing claims that the amendment equates to an abortion ban. But audio obtained by Kansas Reflector revealed that supporters of the abortion amendment already have legislation in mind that would ban abortion from conception until birth, without exceptions.

The Value Them Both Coalition denied Kansas Reflector entry to its election night watch party because the organization doesn’t approve of Reflector news stories.

“We’ve taken our message person-to-door, door-to-door, church-to-church for over a year,” the coalition said in a statement on its Facebook page. “This effort truly has been led by the people as a direct response to our state Supreme Court’s radical decision in 2019 and we’re hopeful our voices will be restored today.”

On Monday, Democrats received a text message — eventually connected to former Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp — that inaccurately told them to vote “yes” to preserve reproductive health rights.

Opponents of the amendment have complained about its misleading language, which could become the basis for a court battle if the amendment passes. A line-by-line analysis by the Guardian concluded “the ballot language sows confusion in an effort to push people to vote ‘yes.’ ” The amendment claims to ban government-funded abortion, which is already a state law, and suggests the Legislature “could” provide exceptions in state law for rape, incest or the life of a mother — even though the amendment doesn’t actually require those exceptions.

Annual reporting from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment shows that a typical abortion in Kansas involves a woman of color between the ages of 20 and 30 who lives in Kansas or Missouri and is unmarried, already has at least one child, has never had an abortion before, is less than nine weeks from gestation and uses the drug mifepristone to terminate her pregnancy.

Because of existing restrictions, which remain in place even if the amendment fails, she has received state-ordered counseling designed to discourage her from having an abortion, waited at least 24 hours, looked at an ultrasound image and pays for the procedure out of her own pocket.

No abortions occurred outside of 22 weeks, the legal threshold except in cases where the mother’s life is in danger.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.