OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — Abortion rights forces scored an upset victory in Kansas on Tuesday when voters rejected an amendment that would have allowed the state legislature to ban the procedure.
The vote, which comes just six weeks after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, means Kansas will remain one of the few red states where abortion is widely accessible. It also provides hope to abortion rights supporters who are betting on ballot initiatives in other conservative states to restore or maintain access to the procedure.
Emily Wales, the president of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, which covers Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma, said seeing the effects of abortion bans recently going into effect in roughly a dozen states made the issue more tangible for Kansans and spurred them to vote no.
“This level of government overreach — literally interfering in the decisions a physician and patient make together — has resonated with people in Kansas,” she said. “It’s a scary moment to think that you or your loved one might be in a situation where it’s not up to you or your provider what care you can get and instead it’s up to the government and what they think you deserve.”
Turnout for the primary also soared above usual levels Tuesday, and in some counties was closer to the participation usually seen in a presidential election. More than 900,000 people voted, with 59 percent voting to reject the amendment.
The in-person early vote, which tends to favor Democrats, was nearly 250 percent higher than the last primary midterm election in 2018, when both Democrats and Republicans had competitive governors’ races, while the number of mail-in ballots was more than double.
The “no” campaign also outperformed in fairly conservative areas — like in Shawnee County in the eastern part of the state — coming in several points ahead of President Joe Biden’s results there in 2020.
At abortion rights groups’ campaign watch party in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, supporters cheered, cried, jumped and hugged each other tightly as new waves of votes were counted in their favor. Teens with purple hair wearing cutoffs mingled with older men and women in suits in a hotel ballroom. One woman cradled a doll of Ruth Bader Ginsburg as she watched the results.
“Abortion isn’t a partisan issue — that’s a trap people fall into,” Ashley All, the spokesperson for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, told POLITICO. “That’s just not the way most Americans or most Kansans think about the issue.”
The results were also hailed by abortion rights groups around the country that see the defeat of the Kansas referendum as a blueprint for future efforts in cities and states across the country. The vote also countered the narrative that the abortion issue is a bigger motivator for conservative voters, and may signal a warning to Republican lawmakers across the country that the Roe decision may generate considerable backlash over the coming months and years.
“Reproductive freedom is a winning issue, now and in November,” NARAL Pro-Choice America President Mini Timmaraju said in a statement. “Anti-choice lawmakers take note: The voters have spoken, and they will turn out at the ballot box to oppose efforts to restrict reproductive freedom.”
The decision means abortion clinics in the state can continue to serve not only Kansans but also patients from Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas and other states that have banned the procedure after Roe fell, many of whom have traveled to Kansas in recent weeks. The anti-abortion campaign seized on this trend, warning in ads that the state would become an “abortion destination” like California if the amendment failed.
Value Them Both, the umbrella group of anti-abortion advocates who pushed for the amendment, called the decision a "temporary setback."
"Our dedicated fight to value women and babies is far from over," they said in a statement Tuesday night. "We will be back."
The referendum's result particularly shocked the state because the pro-amendment campaign had some structural advantages heading into Tuesday, and they were ahead in recent polls.
Not only is Kansas a solidly red state that twice voted for President Donald Trump, but also the supermajority Republican legislature decided to schedule the vote for the primary instead of the general election. Turnout is usually far lower in August and favors Republicans, who have more competitive primaries than Democrats in Kansas. And many college students, who trend more progressive, are away for the summer.
Student activists working to defeat the amendment said they were all more motivated by what they saw as an underhanded effort to suppress their votes.
“It was very intentional, and I think young people have taken note of that and have realized that there are political structures in place to put us down,” said Donnavan Dillon a University of Kansas sophomore who helped lead the country-western-themed Vote Neigh campaign against the amendment. “When I reached out to friends and asked, ‘Do you want to come canvas this weekend?’ everyone’s been all hands on deck — even friends who haven’t been involved politically before.”
The “Value Them Both” amendment was rocket fuel for the usually sleepy primary election. Hundreds of volunteers from around the country converged on the state to knock on hundreds of thousands of doors. Both sides raised and spent millions of dollars on ads, mailers, phone banking and other outreach — much of it from the Catholic Church on the anti-abortion side and Planned Parenthood on the abortion rights side.
But while the state served as proxy war for the groups fighting over abortion rights nationally in a post-Roe America, the campaigns also had a distinctly Kansas flavor.
Outside the state capital in Topeka on Saturday, people protesting against the amendment waved posters covered in sunflowers while speakers on the capitol steps invoked the state motto “Ad astra per aspera” — to the stars through adversity. Local businesses down the street showed Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz urging her fellow Kansans to vote no.
The final days leading up to the vote were also marked by tension and confusion.
Some lawn signs for the “Value Them Both” campaign had NO spray painted over them in black capital letters. Catholic churches — the main funders of the anti-abortion campaign — have also been vandalized, while abortion rights demonstrators have been threatened with arrest.
On Saturday, a group of anti-abortion advocates marched up and down the sidewalks of Lawrence — a progressive college town — yelling “Don’t kill babies” at passersby.
On Sunday, an 18-year-old anti-abortion canvasser who came from Texas to volunteer with the group Students for Life said she was physically assaulted by a resident while knocking on doors in the Kansas City suburb of Leawood. She filed a police report and posted a video that doesn’t show the incident itself but shows the resident yelling and giving her the finger afterward.
On Monday, several residents alerted the state’s ACLU chapter that they received a deceptive robotext from an unknown number suggesting that a “yes” vote would protect abortion access.
“Women in Kansas are losing their choice on reproductive rights,” the messages read, according to screenshots shared with POLITICO. “Voting YES on the amendment will give women a choice.”
Former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius received the texts and said in a statement that she was not surprised by the tactic.
“The anti-choice movement has been lying to the voters of Kansas for decades,” she said. “This act of desperation won’t stop the voters of Kansas from protecting their constitutional rights and freedom.”
Many voters told POLITICO the debate has also pitted family members against one another.
Asked about the “Vote Yes” sign in his front yard, Olathe resident David Schaffer said that it belonged to his daughter and that he vehemently disagrees.
“She can do what she wants. She’s a grown adult,” he said. “But I say, if we turn it over to the legislature, I don't get no say anymore — none. And that’s what this is doing.”
One of his neighbors, Edianna Yantis, told POLITICO her “Vote Yes” was recently stolen from her front yard and she suspected her son, who had been trying to convince her to vote no.
“He said, ‘Mom, I don’t like abortion but this means they’re going to take all abortion away.’ I told him, ‘You need to do your research,’ but he says he has,” she said with a sad smile.
Ultimately, despite the state’s conservative leanings, voters saw the amendment as a bridge too far.
And while younger voters in the state lean more progressive, the defeat of the proposal was also fueled by older Kansans like Barbara Lawson, who remembers life before Roe v. Wade.
When canvassers with Kansans for Constitutional Freedom came to her door on Monday to urge her to vote against the amendment, Lawson shared that she had a baby when she was 17 years old after being raped.
“I don’t know if I would have [had an abortion] because I had no choice — abortion was illegal. It was very hard,” she said. “Now I fear they’re going to restrict all abortions again and we’re going to be left back in the Dark Ages.”
Leading up to Tuesday’s contest, there were signs that voters’ views on abortion were more nuanced than their partisan leanings. A July poll, for example, found that a third of voters favored no restrictions on abortion, while only 9 percent said they preferred a total ban. And a 2021 survey conducted by Fort Hays State University found that over 50 percent of Kansans agreed with the statement: “The Kansas government should not place any regulations on the circumstances under which women can get abortions.”
“People make a lot of assumptions about Kansas,” said Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), the sole Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation, who flipped a previously red district in 2018. “People here care about their community and care about things being fair.”
CLARIFICATION: This article has been updated to indicate that abortions, in certain circumstances, are legal in conservative states.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report misspelled Donnavan Dillon's name.