Kansas upholds right to abortion, a blow to anti-abortion movement in first Roe referendum

Kansas voters overwhelmingly upheld the right to an abortion Tuesday, a surprisingly emphatic blow in a deeply red state against anti-abortion advocates in the nation’s first test vote on abortion access since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

A state constitutional amendment on the primary ballot would have declared that there is no right to an abortion in Kansas, even though that right was protected in a state Supreme Court ruling in 2019. 

Activists on both sides expected the vote on the referendum to be close, but the margin was so decisive – 61%-39% – that news outlets called the vote fewer than two hours after polls closed.

"Tonight, Kansans used their voices to protect women’s right to choose and access reproductive health care," President Joe Biden tweeted. "It’s an important victory for Kansas, but also for every American who believes that women should be able to make their own health decisions without government interference."

With 83% of the vote counted, the tally was approximately 470,00 votes to 304,000 votes, as of 10:30 p.m. CT Tuesday.

Celebrating in Overland Park, Kansas, that voters  upheld abortion rights 61%-39% on Aug. 2, 2022.

While Republicans have a supermajority in the state legislature, Kansans have traditionally been split on abortion. Unaffiliated voters are the second-largest group in the state, behind Republicans. 

The 2019 ruling by the state Supreme Court prohibits the state legislature from banning abortion, setting Kansas apart from many neighboring states that enacted “trigger bans” to eliminate abortion access after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.

Nevertheless, abortion access is heavily restricted under Kansas law, with a 22-week ban, 24-hour waiting period and mandatory ultrasound in place, among other provisions. 

More:Live primary updates: Kansas voters uphold abortion rights in first state vote after the fall of Roe

The Value Them Both Coalition, which represents a variety of anti-abortion groups in the state, spearheaded the constitutional amendment. Danielle Underwood, a spokesperson for Kansans for Life – a group part of the coalition – told USA TODAY ahead of the vote that she expected more restrictions to fall if the amendment didn’t pass. 

“The laws we have on the books right now in Kansas that regulate the abortion industry are like sandcastles,” she said. “All it will take is a legal challenge against them to overturn every single protection we have built into Kansas law for both women and babies in terms of of regulating the abortion industry.” 

Representative Sharice Davids (D-KS) shares a group hug with women during the pro-choice Kansas for Constitutional Freedom primary election watch party in Overland Park, Kansas August 2, 2022.

While abortion access has generally split along party lines in Washington, abortion in Kansas isn’t a partisan issue, said Ashley All, a spokesperson for Kansas for Constitutional Freedom.

“I think that most Kansans don't necessarily see this issue as partisan. I know that that is kind of the frame we all tend to put on it, but that is actually not the way most people think about it. So we really have tried to make sure that we speak to a broad audience,” she said. 

Democratic State Sen. Cindy Holscher said that the “majority of Kansans are very common sense, middle of the road people,” and that the ballot language – which provides no guaranteed exceptions for incest, rape or the mother’s life – drove moderates and Republicans to vote no, even if they personally don’t agree with abortion. 

More:Exclusive: Concern about abortion explodes among Democrats, fueling a push to vote

“This amendment is to an extreme and this legislature has proven that they are willing to pass things that are not in line with the people,” Holscher said. 

Suburbs of Wichita and Topeka heavily voted no, a surprise considering nearly all of those counties voted for former President Donald Trump in 2020.  In Franklin County where Trump won with 68% of the vote, 56% voted to uphold the right to an abortion. 

While primary voter turnout is typically half of general election turnout in the state, Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab told the Associated Press Tuesday that voter turnout was “within reach” of hitting 50%. General election turnout in Kansas has averaged 52% over the past 20 years. 

All said she saw a “surge” of voter registration – heavily leaning Democrat – after the Dobbs decision. A wave of supporters came to volunteer with Kansas for Constitutional Freedom, including moderates and Republicans. 

70% of Kansans who registered to vote after the Dobbs decision was handed down on June 24th are women, according to analysis by TargetSmart, a non-partisan political data organization.

“The Dobbs decision coming down was really kind of a lightning rod that really seemed to get people engaged and alert,” Holscher said. “People had a general awareness that the amendment was coming, but when the Dobbs decision came down, it just made the situation 1000 times more real to people.”

Voters from across Kansas told USA TODAY that most neighborhood lawns were flooded with signs about the vote, the majority of which were “vote no.” 

OVERLAND PARK, KANSAS - AUGUST 01: Signs in favor and against the Kansas Constitutional Amendment On Abortion are displayed outside Kansas 10 Highway on August 01, 2022 in Lenexa, Kansas. On August 2, voters will vote on whether or not to remove protection for abortion from the state constitution. (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images) ***BESTPIX*** ORG XMIT: 775851392 ORIG FILE ID: 1412308440

Democrat Lori Lawrence, 63, said she knew many Republicans voting no.

“I have a conservative neighbor, who now has a ‘vote no’ sign in her yard. Just because you're a Republican doesn't mean you're going to vote, yes. Just because you're a man does not mean you're going to vote yes. I hope that lots and lots of Republicans are voting no,” she told USA TODAY ahead of the vote.

Lawrence said her brother, who is a conservative and voted for Trump, “strongly believes in a women’s right to choose.” He wasn’t going to vote in the primary, but she convinced him to change his mind and vote. 

“It’s his daughter and his granddaughter that will be affected by this,” she said. “I don’t want to have my niece or her child worry about not having access to safe abortions in Kansas, plus all the other women and girls who need this access.”