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Kansas’ vote Aug. 2 was the first time since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade that an abortion access proposal has been put in front of voters.
Fifty-nine percent voted against an amendment that would have removed the right to an abortion from the state constitution. A partial recount confirmed the resounding margin.
“This was a big political event,” said Jake Haselswerdt, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri.
“You can bet that in states with ballot initiatives, people are paying attention,” he added.
Several states, including California, Kentucky, Montana and Vermont, have abortion ballot measures cued up for upcoming elections. Most Americans say they would like the chance to vote on an abortion measure in their state, according to a recent USA Today poll.
In Missouri, groups can file initiative petitions to appear on the ballot. They must obtain enough signatures to represent 8% of legal voters in six of the state’s eight congressional districts. Signed petitions are due six months before an election.
“We’re changing the constitution all the time in Missouri,” Haselswerdt said.
Voters in reliably Republican Kansas upholding abortion rights raises questions about how Missourians might vote on the matter, given some of the states’ electoral similarities over the past two decades. Both voted Republican in the previous six presidential elections, and there have been Republican supermajorities in both states’ legislatures for at least 20 years.
In recent years, Missourians voted to overturn the state’s “right-to-work” law, expand Medicaid access and legalize medical marijuana. In November, an initiative to legalize recreational marijuana will appear on the ballot.
Ballot initiatives take a lot of coordination and money, Haselswerdt said. In fact, grassroots efforts seldom have the organization to build a successful campaign, he said. Often, large interest groups provide the expertise, and sometimes funding, to get a proposal to a ballot.
The campaign to protect the right to abortion in Kansas, called Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, was funded by groups such as the Sixteen Thirty Fund, which supports affordable health care and action on climate change, the Kansas Reflector reports. A large amount of funding also came from Stacy Shusterman, a philanthropist and businesswoman in Oklahoma, and Planned Parenthood.
Other funders who contributed included billionaire Michael Bloomberg, director Steven Spielberg and actress Kate Chapshaw, according to The Kansas City Star.
It’s possible these same funders could have an impact in Missouri, Haselswerdt said. People and initiatives tend to be connected across state lines.
Often, campaigns must get at least double the number of signatures needed since it’s common for signatures to be deemed invalid for reasons ranging from the person not being registered in the correct county to the writing being illegible, Haselswerdt said. Even with millions of dollars, it often takes months to collect enough signatures.
In 2019, an abortion rights group called No Bans on Choice attempted to halt a Missouri law that restricted abortion access. The group sought to do that via a referendum, which puts a law not yet in effect up to voters.
Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft initially rejected the proposal, saying that part of the law in question had already gone into effect. A court eventually ordered Ashcroft to approve the measure. But, with only two weeks left for organizers to gather signatures, the petition never made it in front of voters. Earlier this year, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s decision.
Now that Missouri has enacted a law prohibiting most instances of abortion, an abortion ballot measure in the state would be an initiative, which amends the state’s constitution.
With no chance for an abortion initiative to appear on November’s ballot since the May 8 deadline has long passed, the earliest a measure could appear is next year. There’s also the possibility that groups may wait until a big election year, such as 2024, in hopes of higher turnout.
But what Kansas’ vote proved is that it may not matter when the election is held, Haselswerdt said. Despite it being a primary election, when voter turnout is historically lower, nearly half of registered voters cast ballots. That’s a jump from other recent Kansas primaries that saw less than 35% of voters show up.
“Abortion is so salient. I don’t think you’re going to be able to hide it from people,” Haselswerdt said. “I think if you scheduled it for a school board primary election in April, people would still show up.”
“We’re changing the constitution all the time in Missouri.”
Jake Haselswerdt, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri.
The Missouri Secretary of State’s office will begin looking at new ballot petition applications as early as Nov. 9, following the upcoming election, a Secretary of State office representative said in an email.
Since Missouri’s state government is a majority Republican that does not support abortion access, there’s a possibility lawmakers could respond to an amendment approved by voters by creating new measures to complicate its implementation. Recently, lawmakers advanced a bill that would have asked voters to overturn the Medicaid expansion ballot measure that voters passed.
Meanwhile, groups that support abortion access are doing what they can to increase access in the state, said Maggie Olivia, policy manager at Pro-Choice Missouri. Many were aware and organizing long before the federal abortion protections fell.
“On the ground here in Missouri, movement partners in abortion access, work and advocacy, have been working very hard to be as prepared as possible for the fall of Roe v. Wade, or to mitigate as much harm as possible,” she said.
That could be in the form of a ballot initiative down the line, she said. But, it’s also supporting reproductive health measures such as the new law new law in St. Louis that allocates federal COVID-19 relief funding to help women travel out of state to receive an abortion.
“Pro-Choice Missouri is playing the long game, to make sure that we are very thoughtfully and intentionally not only rebuilding abortion access in Missouri, but equitable abortion access, which was never really a reality for our state,” Olivia said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri is also continuing its fight for access. “The ACLU of Missouri will continue to fight for abortion rights in the courts, in the statehouse, at the ballot box through ballot measures and other races, and in the streets – not just today – but for the foreseeable future,” a representative said in an email.