WASHINGTON — Voters in at least three states will determine at the polls in November what abortion access looks like for their neighbors, colleagues, friends and family — becoming among the first Americans to deliver their own verdict on the decision of the United States Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Residents of California, Kentucky and Vermont will decide whether their state constitution should protect access to abortion. Michigan voters seem likely to join them, though officials are working on a challenge from an anti-abortion group, which argued the petition’s text is “confusing gibberish” due to numerous errors.
Polling questions should provide a clearer picture of voters’ views on abortion than the candidates they vote for in midterm elections, in part because people rarely choose candidates based on a single issue .
That could make voting questions a popular way for states to determine when and how pregnant patients can access elective or medically necessary abortions — potentially thwarting abortion bans imposed in some states after the Supreme Court ruling. Ballot initiatives could even give some politicians loopholes from difficult debates.
“If I was a savvy politician, that would be exactly what I would want to do,” said Lonna Atkeson, LeRoy Collins Emeritus in Civics and Political Science at Florida State University. “I would like to take it out of my hands and try to understand what the public wants, so that it doesn’t create problems with my re-election goals.”
Atkeson, director of the nonpartisan think tank the LeRoy Collins Institute and a member of the MIT Data and Election Science Board, said voting questions could give Republican candidates the chance to say “I’m pro-life, I think the life is important … but I respect people.
“It’s even great for Democrats in a way,” she added. “If the electorate wants more nuanced politics, if they want boundaries, then I think that even gives Democrats the same relief valve. So that’s the huge advantage.
Campaigns are underway in Iowa, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Washington to ask questions about the ballot over the next two years, according to Ballotpedia.
Kansas was the first
Kansas voters were the first in the nation to speak out on abortion access following the U.S. Supreme Court‘s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, when conservative justices chose to end the constitutional right to abortion and return the issue “to the citizens and their elected officials.”
In a surprise victory for abortion-rights supporters, 59% of Kansas voters backed keeping abortion protections under the state constitution, while 41% wanted to remove those protections. Their withdrawal would have given the green light to anti-abortion lawmakers who wanted to pass legislation that would likely have restricted abortion.
Ally Boguhn, director of communications for NARAL Pro-Choice America, said the organization will work with its partners in states to determine whether ballot questions are a way forward to expand or maintain access to abortion.
“I think the success we’ve seen in Kansas is making people reconsider ballot metrics everywhere,” Boguhn said.
The margin of victory for abortion-rights supporters in Kansas, Boguhn said, “leaves no doubt that this is a truly winning question and one that voters are very keen to weigh in on.”
Clarke Forsythe, senior counsel at Americans United for Life, who declined an interview request, said in a statement that voting issues could ‘play a role’ following the Supreme Court‘s ruling on abortion this summer. .
Abortion rights organizations, Forsythe said, “may believe that if they can outspend pro-lifers, ballot initiatives and referendums are a better forum for them” than pushing bills through. of law by the state legislatures.
“That may be part of the reality of the post-Dobbs political landscape that pro-life Americans will have to deal with,” Forsythe said.
The result in Kansas contrasts with how Kansans voted for Statehouse and congressional candidates, perhaps indicating that while Kansas voters generally favor elected GOP officials and most of the policies they support, they also want abortion to remain legal.
Kansas voters haven’t sent a Democrat to the US Senate since the 1930s and are currently represented by US senses Jerry Moran and Roger Marshall, both of whom oppose abortion. The State House and State Senate have been controlled by Republicans for decades.
Voters in the state, however, have swung between Democratic and Republican governors, with Kansans narrowly electing abortion-rights-supporting Democratic Governor Laura Kelly in 2018.
Beth Reingold, a professor of political science and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Emory University in Atlanta, said gerrymandering has skewed the state’s legislative and congressional districts, issues of voting could be a pathway for majority rule on abortion.
“In some ways, I think many view ballot initiatives as the last option, or the last great hope for majority rule,” Reingold said. “Because minority rule has kind of captured legislatures and courts.”
Reingold said it’s hard to predict at this time whether voting questions will become a mainstream way to address abortion rights in the post-Dobbs era, or whether voters may consider voting questions all the few years, the way they vote on the re-elections of the candidates.
“It’s a bit difficult to predict. But the more it looks like the ballot initiative is the only or best option for a particular camp, then yes,” she said.
National Abortion Votes
However, not all states have ballot initiatives, Reingold noted.
Twenty-five states have measures in place for direct initiatives, in which voters have a way to ask questions directly on the ballot, or indirect initiatives, where the proposal is first submitted to the legislature of the state.
Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon and South Dakota are among the states where residents can get a question on the ballot.
There are, however, other ways to get a statewide vote on abortion.
When voters head to the polls in California, Kentucky and Vermont later this year, they will vote on a statutorily returned constitutional amendment, in which state lawmakers first voted to change the state’s constitution. state and are now asking voters to approve the change. .
Voters in Kentucky will be asked if they support amending the state constitution to say, “To protect human life, nothing in this Constitution shall be construed as guaranteeing or protecting the right to abortion.” or demanding funding for abortion.
California voters will be able to decide whether they support changing their constitution to say the state “shall not deny or interfere with an individual’s reproductive freedom in their most intimate decisions, which includes their fundamental right to choose.” to have an abortion and her fundamental right to choose”. or refuse contraceptives.
A poll from the Berkeley Institute for Government Studies shows that about 71% of state residents plan to support the ballot issue.
Vermonters will vote on adding language to the state constitution that “an individual’s right to personal reproductive autonomy is central to the freedom and dignity to determine one’s own course.” of life and shall not be denied or infringed unless justified by a compelling state interest achieved by the least restrictive means”.
Similarly, the Kansans voted this summer on a constitutional amendment returned by law when they chose to protect access to abortion under their state constitution.
State legislatures can also return state laws to voters.
That’s what happened in Montana last year, when state lawmakers voted to ask a question about this year’s ballot, asking residents if they want the law of the State says that a “child born alive, including a child born during an abortion, shall be treated as a legal person under the laws of the State, with the same rights to medical care and treatment appropriate and reasonable.
More states in 2023
As it can take months for lawmakers or state citizens to get a ballot question before voters, efforts have already been undertaken in a number of states to meet the requirements of abortion-related referendums.
New York, Pennsylvania and Washington are on track to address abortion ballot initiatives in 2023, followed by possible statewide votes in Iowa, Nevada and South Dakota in 2024, according to Ballotpedia.
Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science at Emory University, said the language of future voting questions could have significant significance in determining whether they are approved or rejected.
“Especially in some Democratic-leaning states, if you put constitutional amendments on the ballot that say, ‘There should be an unlimited right to abortion, regardless of when it occurs during pregnancy,’ that can behave differently than a Conservative ballot initiative or a constitutional amendment referendum that says, ‘We’re going to ban abortion at all times, no exceptions,’” she said.
“So I think we’ll have to be very careful to remember that wording is important, and you’re not going to have quite an apples-to-apples comparison,” Gillespie added.
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