Kansans embark on statewide civics experiment of abortion amendment vote, outcome unknown
Signs for and against the state constitutional amendment have become a common sight throughout Kansas this summer. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
The abortion amendment battle comes to a head this August election day, and if nothing else it proves that civic debate thrives in Kansas.
TV ads burble, yard signs protrude and glossy fliers stuff mailboxes from one side of the state to the other. Online forums buzz with the back and forth. Folks chat in their front yards, at the grocery store, inside restaurants.
Should the Kansas constitution protect the right of women to choose an abortion? Or should legislators be allowed to pass restrictions on the procedure, up to and including a total ban? Those are both the questions and the stakes. Throughout the last year, I repeatedly noted how pivotal this vote would be in charting our state’s future.
If they didn’t know before, Kansans surely know now.
In his majority opinion overruling Roe v. Wade, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito appeared to endorse just this type of robust public conversation. Or as he concluded:
“The Constitution does not prohibit the citizens of each State from regulating or prohibiting abortion. Roe and Casey arrogated that authority. We now overrule those decisions and return that authority to the people and their elected representatives.”
That debate appears likely to translate into votes, as well.
Secretary of State Scott Schwab forecast 200,000 extra voters for the Aug. 2 election, traditionally a sleepy primary contest. That would mean approximately 702,000 votes cast, or 36% of our 1.9 million registered voters. I suspect the intensity of this summer’s debate will drive turnout higher.
Even then, the ultimate tally will likely miss 2020’s general election turnout of 1.4 million voters, or 70.9% of those registered.
With all of the above being said, however, I wonder.
I wonder how deeply Kansans actually thought about abortion and abortion restrictions over the past few months. When advocates on one side of the campaign spread untruths about the amendment, that makes it difficult for voters to actually weigh the pros and cons.
When a statewide vote is scheduled in August, as opposed to the general election, turnout will likely lag.
And when the text of an amendment reads like an impenetrable word salad — I have heard from college-educated folks close to me that they had no idea what the measure actually did or what their votes meant — the meaning of the outcome will be in doubt.
As I wrote last week, abortion is a complicated topic. Many people have complicated feelings about it. We deserved a campaign that stated outright what the amendment meant to do, and what we as a state are prepared to do legislatively in restricting abortion. If lawmakers plan further restrictions, what resources will they put in place for mothers-to-be? What kind of exemptions or time cutoffs are they prepared to debate?
We didn’t have those discussions, at least that I saw. Proponents and opponents of the legislation often spoke past one another.
Perhaps that was inevitable when an irresistible force meets an immovable object. Belief in the sanctity of life and belief in a right to self-determination form the bedrock of many Kansans’ values. Which one takes priority? We’ll see soon enough.
Beyond the campaign
After the vote, we will still be here.
Kansas will still be here, and supporters and opponents of the amendment will still be here.
If Schwab’s predictions prove correct, less than a quarter of the population will have decided on the potential rights of all women in a state of nearly 3 million people. That’s the system we have, and the decision legislators made when setting the vote. We will then figure out how to handle the consequences.
Alito’s opinion envisions a world in which those on opposite sides of an issue can engage in debate and make collective decisions. It envisions a world in which painful compromises are reached after thorough weighing of the pros and cons. It envisions a world in which as many people as possible take up the difficult work of democracy.
Whatever the results, they will form a new reality for Kansas and its residents. We do not have a federal guarantee of abortion rights. We do have our state constitution, our state laws and whatever decisions we reach during elections and Statehouse sessions.
This conversation won’t end on election night.
Indeed, for Kansas it’s scarcely begun.
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