Kansas protects abortion rights in voter-led primary election

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“Abortion rights supporters hold signs at a Stop Abortion Bans Rally in St Paul, Minnesota.” Photo and caption by Lorie Shaull on Unsplash.

On Aug. 2, over 900,000 Kansas voters bustled to local election offices in what would come to be a record-breaking turnout for the state’s primary elections.

On the ballot, Kansans faced a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would have effectively remove the right to an abortion. Voters overwhelmingly refused the measure by nearly 20 percentage points, which was the first of five abortion-related issues set to be voted upon this year in the country.

A “yes” vote for the proposed amendment would have been in favor of removing abortion as a protected right from the Kansas constitution — ultimately allowing legislators to introduce restrictions and bans in the future. A “no” vote would have rejected this amendment and leave protections for abortion rights in place.

As expected for a controversial issue, campaigns on both sides raised millions of dollars in funding in the months leading up to the election. The two most popular campaigns were “Value Them Both” for accepting the proposed amendment, and “Vote No Kansas” for rejecting the measure.

For some Kansans, the ballot language was regarded as confusing, not clearly stating whether a “yes” or “no” vote would accept or reject the measure. To add to the uncertainty, an anonymous source texted Kansans a false statement on the morning of the election: “Women in KS are losing their choice on reproductive rights. Voting YES on the amendment will give women a choice. Vote YES to protect women’s health.”

With the turnout nearly doubling that of previous primaries, the highly anticipated election amassed a vote count rivaling that of the 2020 presidential election, short only a few hundred thousand votes. In total, more Kansas residents cast votes for or against the proposed amendmendent than voted for Donald Trump (R, 771,406) or Joseph Biden (D, 570,323) individually in 2020.

Following the Supreme Court’s June 24 bombshell decision to overturn Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), Kansas sought out voter approval before enforcing or rejecting proposed restrictions. In contrast, other states, such as Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, South Dakota and Wisconsin, quickly enacted trigger laws — policies set in place to restrict abortion access in anticipation of such a ruling.

Kansas resident Melissa Leavitt requested a recount in nine of Kansas’ 105 counties, paid for by anti-abortion activist Mark Gietzen and online fundraising. Reporting the new results on Aug. 20, less than 100 votes changed compared to the count on Aug. 2 and the state confirmed the rejection of the measure.

As of Aug. 25, 12 states have effectively banned abortion access for their residents; meanwhile three states carry restrictions relating to gestational age, and several others wait on court decisions and legal clarification before enforcement.

With Missouri spearheading bans on the medical procedure, residents must travel out-of-state for abortion-related services. Further, Two clinics in Overland Park, KS, best serve Missouri’s Kansas City Metro area, including the William Jewell College community.

In the weeks leading up to the election, several Jewell students took to social media to educate others on the implications of the proposed amendment. For them, the election was more than just a neighboring state’s problem.

“A lot of uterus-having-people feared for their lives [on the night of the election],” Mia Page, a Missouri resident and music performance major, explained. “Even if it’s not in my state, [the outcome] gives hope to the rest of the country.”

Communications major Edward James Rapstine IV added to this sentiment: “[Some of] my best friends are from Kansas. It impacts them, and if it impacts them, it impacts me.”

However, to others, the Kansas primary outcome highlighted the power of allowing individuals to vote by issue rather than relying on elected representatives.

“[The results] show that a traditionally red state can vote for a more democratic policy when rights are questioned,” Darby Slaughter said, a Missouri resident and history and theater dual major.

To many students and voters — as evidenced by the record Kansas turnout — voting by issue may prove to be an improvement rather than relying on elected officials as traditionally expected for proposals relating to contentious issues.

“I was pleasantly surprised when Kansas allowed voting on the issue of abortion rather than simply illegalizing it like many other states did,” Alexis Harper, a Kansas resident and biology major, said.

Graphic by Liz Payton. Survey conducted by B.J. Bartels. Sample size: 20 random students in Pryor Learning Commons.

Despite the Kansas outcome, the United States remains a battleground for access to reproductive services, and individuals in the Kansas City metro still risk a 40-minute drive turning to a multi-day trip for in-person services if further restrictions are adopted in the state.

Although Missouri did not defer to voters for abortion-related measures this past primary election, the Kansas turnout and results may serve as an incentive to expand vote-by-issue ballots to include  other contentious issues. In August 2020, voters accepted a proposal to expand Medicaid coverage, but the change was not implemented until October 2021. Currently, Missouri voters are set to vote on legalizing recreational marijunana in the November general election.

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