Kansas voters diving into first statewide referendum on abortion since Roe overturned

Constitutional amendment draws piles of cash, misleading ads and church activism

By: and - August 1, 2022 3:39 pm
Former Gov. Jeff Colyer rallied volunteers and staff working for passage of an amendment to the Kansas Constitution that would declare the document didn't assure women a right to abortion in Kansas. Voting on the amendment ends Tuesday. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Former Gov. Jeff Colyer rallied volunteers and staff working for passage of an amendment to the Kansas Constitution that would declare the document didn’t assure women a right to abortion in Kansas. Voting on the amendment ends Tuesday. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Former Gov. Jeff Colyer pleaded with two dozen volunteers and staff Monday to push through exhaustion and the heat to seek last-minute votes for an amendment to the Kansas Constitution declaring no right to abortion existed in the state.

Colyer, a pro-life Republican who lost the 2018 GOP primary for governor by less than 200 votes, said he wanted each person to make 10 phone calls to prospective voters, plant more yard signs across Topeka and hang more cards from home doors. He predicted the amendment vote would be close.

“This is the most important election in your lifetimes,” he told a group of elderly and youthful supporters. “Any of you can make a difference in this race.”

He said the undecided were on the cusp of choosing a side ahead of the Tuesday election determining outcome of a political battle fueled by millions of dollars, thousands of volunteeers, an unprecedented media barrage and an unusually high volume of misinformation about potential consequences of the statewide vote.

While Colyer was addressing supporters of the amendment, registered Democratic voters in Kansas were receiving unsolicited text messages that falsely claimed a “yes” vote on the amendment would preserve reproductive rights in the state. The messages appeared to be from an “888” area code.

“Vote YES to protect women’s health,” the erroneous message to Kansas Democrats read.

On Monday, Secretary of State Scott Schwab said 270,000 people had voted in-person or by mail in the primary. That’s three times the number of advance ballots cast by Kansas voters in the 2018 primary election, the last without presidential candidates on the ballot. Kansas Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians and independents — all are welcome to vote on the amendment — have piled into the controversy.

Schwab said 233,000 people had cast ballots in Kansas at this juncture in the 2020 primary, which featured the presidential vote. A mere 89,000 advance votes had been documented by now in 2018. He predicted turnout in Kansas could reach 36% or about 680,000 given importance placed on the abortion amendment and presence of competive partisan primaries.

Forces on both sides of the abortion debate continued to press potential voters to express their views on the Value Them Both amendment nullifying a 2019 Kansas Supreme Court decision that declared the right to bodily autonomy, including abortion, existed in the state constitution’s Bill of Rights. An international spotlight has been placed on Kansas because the amendment represents the nation’s first statewide vote on abortion rights since the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade in June.

Vandals expressed opposition Monday on the facade of Calvary Temple Assembly of God in Lawrence to the proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution deleting the right of women to an abortion. Voting ends 7 p.m. Tuesday. (Jill Hummels for Kansas Reflector)
Vandals expressed opposition Monday on the facade of Calvary Temple Assembly of God in Lawrence to the proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution deleting the right of women to an abortion. Voting ends 7 p.m. Tuesday.
(Jill Hummels for Kansas Reflector)

 

Heavyweights sound off

Former Kansas GOP Congressman Mike Pompeo, who served as U.S. secretary of state under President Donald Trump, urged people to vote for the amendment.

He said the amendment’s text “simply affirms that Kansans have the right to legislate abortion through their representatives and not be overruled by the courts.”

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, who said she voted against the amendment, said preservation of existing reproductive rights of women necessitated rejection of the amendment. A simple majority of Kansans participating in the vote will decide the amendment’s fate.

“Get out and vote. This is your opportunity to have a voice in how our state operates. It’s very important,” Kelly said. “You know, people tend to overlook the primary elections. They should not. This is a really important one, and I hope that everybody gets out.”

Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican certain to win the party’s nomination for governor, said he would join pro-life Kansans voting for the amendment. He said voters of Kansas would “show the path forward for Kansas” in terms of abortion politics.

The polls across Kansas will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Passage of the amendment would eliminate constitutional protections of abortion rights in Kansas, possibly triggering new regulations by the Legislature. Rejection of the amendment would mean the state constitution continued to guarantee women access to abortion.

The amendment, written by legislators and lobbyists opposed to abortion, didn’t include language preserving exemptions from prohibitions to save the life of a woman or in cases of rape or incest.

The statewide vote followed the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, which for nearly 50 years provided women the right to abortion nationwide. That 5-4 decision ignited debate in the 50 states about affirming or rejecting abortion rights.

It also served to draw intense scrutiny of the previously scheduled vote in Kansas on the constitutional amendment inspired by the state Supreme Court decision.

 

Personal perspectives

The campaign for and against the Kansas amendment, which has consumed more than $11 million, inspired misinformation and confusion. For example, advocates of the amendment argued rejection of the measure would lead to late-term abortions or public funding of the procedure. Neither is a certainty. Likewise, opponents of the amendment said passage would lead to a ban on abortion. That’s possible, but not an absolute.

State Sen. Cindy Holscher, an Overland Park Democrat and opponent of the amendment, said she was disturbed by the millions of dollars spent by Catholic dioceses in Kansas to persuade individuals to vote for the Value Them Both amendment. She said in a column published by The Kansas City Star no state or body of citizens should have the religious doctrine of one faith imposed on them, she said.

“The implications to women’s and religious freedom are staggering,” Holscher said.

Patrick Penn, a Republican state representative from Wichita, recommended in a Brietbart column that Kansans vote for the amendment. He offered a personal perspective while outlining his mother’s decision not to have an abortion.

“She, with little to no support from those who were closest to her, was being pressured to have an abortion,” Penn said. “Instead, my mother courageously chose life for her first son against all odds and despite the circumstances. Though the situation was not ideal, she understood the value of the life and the weight of the decision she had to make.”

Advocates who delivered two-thirds majorities in the state House and Senate required to place the amendment on statewide ballots decided to conduct the vote on abortion during the August primary. Their calculation was to take advantage of typically high voter turnout among Republicans and modest turnout by Democrats in primaries.

Regardless of the outcome, the vigorous campaign on abortion rights served as an indication culture wars in the United States were far from over. The abortion vote also could deepen the philosophical split between urban and rural voters in Kansas, with the amendment prevailing in the state’s sparsely populated counties and failing in population centers of Johnson, Douglas and Wyandotte counties.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the 2021 and 2022 Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.

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