The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Kansas abortion vote, in one graph

Turnout and timing proved critical to Tuesday’s voting

A billboard in Kansas City on July 11 urges Kansans to vote “no” on a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution that would have allowed the legislature to restrict abortion rights. (Gabriella Borter/Reuters)

On Tuesday, Kansas voters overwhelmingly rejected a constitutional amendment that would have allowed the legislature to restrict abortion rights. As the first state to vote on abortion since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, Kansas attracted attention from a national and international audience.

How did opponents of the amendment prevail? And what does this mean for party agendas and electoral prospects going forward?

Voter turnout matters

With relatively few competitive races, primary elections in Kansas tend to be sleepy affairs. Not this time.

Kansans voted to protect abortion rights. Why?

The figure below compares the level of turnout by county (along the X-axis, with higher turnout to the right) compared to the percentage of voters in each county voting against the amendment (along the Y-axis). Counties voting to protect abortion rights are higher on the Y-axis, and those voting to restrict abortion rights are lower on the axis. Each county is shown proportional to its population. Data for the figure comes from the Kansas secretary of state website.

For reference, the figure includes the average turnout across Kansas’s counties in the 2018 primary — a turnout of just 17 percent. In the 2022 primary, in contrast, turnout in all but three of the 105 Kansas counties outpaced the 2018 benchmark.

Notably, turnout was unusually high regardless of whether county voters, on balance, favored or opposed the amendment. But turnout was greatest in the most sparsely populated counties. By contrast, the most influential votes came from the counties that opposed the amendment (those above the 50 percent horizontal line in the figure), which were also the most populous.

These results are about more than partisanship

The counties voting to reject the amendment tended to be reliable Democratic areas. But party affiliation alone can’t explain the outcome. Even in traditionally Republican counties, more voters rejected the amendment than we would expect from partisan behavior alone. Polling on the issue was scarce, but a mid-July Co/Efficient poll showed that nearly 20 percent of Republicans intended to reject the amendment.

That trend largely bore out: On average, counties voted “no” on the amendment by a margin of 9 percentage points higher than they voted for the Democrats’ gubernatorial candidate, Laura Kelly, in 2018. What’s more, “no” performed almost 20 percentage points higher by county than Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in 2016 and 2020, respectively. Here’s an example — while Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump carried conservative Ellis County by more than 70 percent of the vote in both 2016 and 2020, support for the amendment (the “yes” votes) in the county peaked at less than 60 percent.

In many states with antiabortion laws, majorities favor abortion rights

Timing matters, too

Kansas state lawmakers wrote the “Value Them Both” amendment after a 2019 Kansas Supreme Court ruling that held that abortion rights were protected by the state Constitution. But to amend the Kansas Constitution, a supermajority of both chambers of the Kansas legislature must first adopt the amendment and send it to the voters for their approval.

The first attempt took place in February 2020, but it fell 4 votes shy of the necessary supermajority in the Kansas House of Representatives. After the 2020 elections, which saw the Republican Party consolidate its influence on the issue of abortion, and the replacement of the holdout Republicans, legislators brought forward a similar vote in 2021, over now-Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto.

To increase the odds of the voters supporting the amendment, the state legislature voted to bring the issue before the public during the primary election, rather than during the general election, as is customary. Turnout in Kansas primary elections is generally quite low (under 20 percent) and overwhelmingly dominated by Republican voters — in fact, 82 percent of voters in the 2018 primaries were Republican. Thus, in early summer, everything seemed to be on track for the amendment to pass.

Then the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Voter registration surged, particularly among women, after the leak of the Dobbs decision and its release. Money from outside the state poured in to match the already well-funded “Value Them Both” organization. And “vote no” signs — which had been quite rare in most neighborhoods — became as ubiquitous as “Value Them Both” signs.

Without the intervening Dobbs decision — stimulating Democratic turnout, possibly shifting views of GOP voters and generating more voter interest — the amendment probably would have passed fairly easily. The fortuitous timing for abortion rights supporters dealt a massive blow to the antiabortion movement in Kansas and beyond.

What now?

Across the country, the Kansas results have buoyed Democrats’ spirits — encouraging candidates to emphasize the protection of abortion rights in their midterm election platforms in the hope of attracting greater support this fall. Given President Biden’s flagging approval ratings and mixed indicators about the economy, the news is particularly welcome for Democrats trying to find a winning message with voters.

Half of Americans support abortion on demand

Aside from partisan contests, the Kansas results signal what to expect when other states vote on abortion rights this November. Kentucky votes on a similar measure, for instance, while Michigan voters will decide whether the state should expand and protect abortion access.

While each state’s context is different, these were all Trump-friendly states, based on the 2020 presidential election results. However, the lessons from Kansas suggest that support for abortion protections do not necessarily dovetail neatly with presidential election outcomes. Could the Kansas results temper GOP state legislators’ support for near-total bans on abortion? We’ll know soon enough.

Don’t miss any of TMC’s smart analysis! Sign up for our newsletter.

Nathaniel Birkhead is associate professor of political science at Kansas State University and co-author of “Congress in Reverse: Repeals From Reconstruction to the Present” (University of Chicago Press, 2020). Find him on Twitter @Nate_Birkhead.