On a sunny afternoon, a steady stream of voters trickle in and out of the Shawnee County Elections office, getting a head start on the Aug. 2 election.
Some are veterans of primary elections, casting their ballot every chance they get.
But, for others, turning out is a rare occurrence. Many are unaffiliated voters who can't vote in Kansas primaries, and others are Democrats who have little motivation to do so.
Eleanor Butler falls into the latter category. The Auburn health care worker doesn't usually vote in primaries as a Democrat, and Election Day is tough for her, as she works long hours.
But she said it was important to vote early to weigh in on a proposed abortion amendment to the Kansas Constitution.
"We're Kansans. We can choose," Butler said. "It's awesome. We're the only state that can choose at the moment."
Kansas is the first state to weigh in on abortion since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision last month, a move that ended nationwide abortion protections.
The amendment in Kansas would, if approved, state that the state constitution doesn't confer a right to an abortion. And after millions of dollars in spending and thousands of volunteer hours on both sides, voters appear to have gotten the message.
Advanced voting totals are far outpacing 2018 numbers, with more than three times as many Kansans casting a ballot in-person compared with four years ago. Some counties across the state are re-evaluating their turnout projections even further, increasing them amid the heightened interest.
Jake Fisher, deputy elections commissioner in Shawnee County, said every indication was that 2022 would bring record voter turnout for a primary election — largely because of the proposed anti-abortion amendment to the Kansas Constitution.
"There's nothing that we do here that drives the vote," Fisher said. "It's always the candidates and the issues that get voters energized. And we have seen a very energized electorate so far."
Amendment advocates and opponents believe the higher rate of voter participation is a boon for their side.
The reality, however, is yet to be seen — but the importance of the moment isn't lost on anyone, even national observers.
"Kansas is ground center right now in American politics," said James Carville, a prominent Democratic strategist known for his work with former President Bill Clinton, after a Topeka fundraiser Monday.
Primary election turnout surges ahead of normal pace
Legislative Republicans drew blowback when they elected to put the abortion amendment on the primary ballot, a move that proponents argued would ensure it got the attention it deserved.
But primary turnout is always lower than in a general election, not just in Kansas but across the country.
In 2018, 457,598 primary voters turned out to vote, less than half of the over 1 million Kansans who cast a ballot in the general. That's despite competitive primaries for governor on both the Democrat and Republican sides — a fact that actually gave the 2018 primary higher turnout than either 2014 or 2010.
Primaries generally also turnout a more conservative swath of voters. Only one major race on the Democratic side has a competitive, contested primary in 2022, with Democrat voters choosing their candidate to take on U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran in the fall.
Republicans, meanwhile, have three contested statewide primaries, including the high-profile attorney general race involving controversial former Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Sen. Kellie Warren and federal prosecutor Tony Mattivi that has attracted ample spending and interest among voters.
But increasingly it appears the amendment is the ballot item driving traffic to the polls, leading some observers to wonder if it will change the dynamics of some of the other primary races.
Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, who chairs the Kansas House committee that handles abortion issues, said he had no regrets about putting the vote on the primary ballot.
"What's the old saying? 'You have to play the game the way it comes to you on that day,'" said Barker, a supporter of the amendment. "And this is the cards we've been dealt."
Statewide, data from the Kansas secretary of state's office already show over 163,000 advanced ballots cast, either in person or by mail, compared with 56,000 in 2018. A narrow majority of those have been cast by Republicans.
And the number of advanced mail ballots that have already been returned is twice the 2018 mark, even though roughly 75,000 mail ballots remain outstanding as of Thursday.
Michael Smith, a professor of political science at Emporia State University, noted the rise in turnout compared with the 2018 primary showed an increase in unaffiliated voters, who couldn't cast a ballot four years ago, showing up to the polls.
But he also argued that the increase was likely fueled by Democrats reacting to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in late June. GOP voters, by contrast, he said were largely baked into the 2018 numbers.
"I suspect that most of the boost in turnout is really coming from the 'vote no' side who are not as accustomed to getting their voters out in primary elections," Smith said.
The surge in voter interest has been steady in counties of all shapes and sizes, but has been most pronounced in the state's urban and suburban cores.
In Johnson County, demand has been so high that the county has added more sites for in-person early voting, even beyond what was offered in 2020, the highest turnout election in Kansas history.
Advanced voting in the county has already surpassed 2018 numbers.
That's also true in Dickinson County, where the number of advanced mail ballots requested by voters nearly reached 2020 levels.
"It's been pretty hot and steady," Dickinson County Clerk Jeanne Livingstone said.
Abortion amendment vote presents unique challenges for officials
Constitutional amendment votes are not uncommon but their campaigns have never been as contentious, expensive or high-profile as the abortion vote.
This has prompted a unique set of challenges for election officials.
Kansas law limits electioneering, or wearing or displaying materials that advocate for one candidate or another. In a constitutional amendment context, this includes advocating in support of or in opposition to the question at hand.
This has created gray areas, however.
The ACLU of Kansas sent a message to local officials in Reno County after poll workers were told to allow voters wearing materials from the Value Them Both Coalition, the largest group supporting the amendment, and Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, the largest group urging a "no" vote, into the polling place.
The logic is neither group's merchandise would constitute directly urging a vote for or against the amendment. But in an email to local officials, Sharon Brett, legal director for the ACLU, said "the campaign’s insignia “clearly indicate(s) support or opposition” to the amendment itself," making it "textbook electioneering."
Reno County ultimately reversed its policy, though it isn't the only county to see similar issues arise.
In Wichita, the ACLU raised objections after a truck with anti-abortion signs and photos of aborted fetuses was parked near a door to a polling place. Officials have responded by ensuring the exit isn't used.
"There are lots of nuances here," Brett said in an interview. "It is a very politically charged election and there's a lot of people who are wanting to have their voices heard directly outside polling locations. And the statute is not necessarily the clearest."
In Dickinson County, election officials put out a news release threatening abortion-rights protestors with arrest if they continued demonstrating within 250 feet of the county courthouse, as that location is an early voting location.
And as churches across the state have waded into the amendment debate, frequently posting signs on their property in favor of the amendment, those materials will be allowed to remain on Election Day, provided they are more than 250 feet from the polling place entrance.
Ashley All, a spokesperson for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, the most prominent group opposing the amendment, said it was her hope that churches would voluntarily take the signs down.
"It is not the law that they have to, but I think that it would be a good idea," All said. "Because I think people do feel pressure if they are going to go vote at a location that is obviously supporting or not supporting a position."
What effect will higher turnout have on the abortion vote?
Whether a flood of voters will ultimately impact the amendment's odds of passage are yet unclear.
All noted the question's placement on the primary ballot still posed an "uphill battle."
"We're hopeful that the turnout helps," she said. "But it's obviously too early to see whether that helps us overcome the real obstacle that is putting this on the primary ballot.
The Value Them Both Coalition, the largest group supporting the amendment's passage, said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday that their grassroots efforts remained strong, pointing to 275,000 doors knocked in the state.
"You can see by those numbers what we mean when we say this is the largest grassroots mobilization in Kansas history," Danielle Underwood, a spokesperson for the Value Them Both Coalition, told reporters.
Polling has remained scarce for much of the campaign but the lone public poll released in late July showed a 4-point advantage for the "yes" side — with an acknowledgement that the race effectively remained a toss up.
A "wild card" said Smith, the Emporia State professor, could be unaffiliated voters, who appear to have gotten the message that they are allowed to vote on the constitutional amendment.
In Saline County, Clerk Jamie Doss has done radio promotion to help inform unaffiliated voters.
"We've been fielding calls, letting them know they can come out to vote," she said. "Everyone has something to vote on."
And everybody will be watching the results of the vote — Smith said he is meeting with a French journalist in the days leading up to Election Day.
"Everybody's watching and whichever side wins, if their strategy appears to have worked ... everybody's gonna be taking notes (nationally)," he said.
Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com or by phone at 443-979-6100.
This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: Kansas abortion constitutional amendment drives record turnout