When Kansans voted overwhelmingly to protect abortion this summer, the 59-41 referendum margin in the deep-red state sent shockwaves through the country, inspiring pro-choice advocates and sending anti-abortion campaigners scrambling for an unexpected political dogfight as five similar ballot initiatives approach in November.
The abortion referendums – in Kentucky, Montana, California, Vermont and Michigan – have seen both sides organize extensive campaigns.
In Kentucky and Montana, red like Kansas, it was Republicans and anti-abortion advocates who brought the initiatives with the aim of removing abortion protections from state constitutions.
They say the Kansas loss was an outlier because the language on the ballot in that referendum was too confusing for the result to be reflective of Kansans’ will. Hoping to avoid the same fate, the Kentucky ballot will ask voters to agree with the statement: “Nothing in this constitution shall be construed to secure or protect a right to abortion or require the funding of abortion.”
Although Kentucky is reliably Republican, its supreme court – which will decide, a week after the referendum, whether the state’s current abortion ban is viable – does not yet clearly lean one way on abortion rights.
“The stakes are kind of like they were in Kansas,” said Rachel Rebouché, the dean of Temple University’s school of law. “You have a red state with a history of anti-abortion legislation – and if the electorate says no to this ballot, it will send a clear signal that there’s a disconnect between the voters and the state and the legislators, who would otherwise pass anti-abortion laws.”
She cautioned, however, that it was not clear Kentuckians will turn out to vote in the same way Kansans did. Kentucky’s electorate also skews more conservative on reproductive rights, with a 12-point margin between those who want abortion to be mostly legal and mostly illegal, according to the New York Times (though that analysis appeared to undercount the support for abortion in Kansas, predicting a neck-and-neck race that was far from the 18-point margin that materialized in August).
“There is the general sense that [Kentucky] is a harder fight. People suspect the ballot initiative will be successful, or if it fails, it won’t be by as wide a margin as in Kansas,” says Rebouché.
In Montana, Republicans are pushing a more confusingly worded measure, stating that “infants born alive after an abortion, are legal persons”, and threatening medical providers with up to 20 years in prison and fines of up to $50,000.
Montana’s supreme court has ruled that the state constitution’s right to privacy protects the right to abortion, so a yes vote for this ballot would not explicitly ban the procedure.
But experts worry the wording of the ballot could confuse people in a red state where the electorate, like in Kansas, is nonetheless largely in favor of abortion rights.
“The bill is intended to incrementally change the narrative – to recognize fetal personhood and to limit abortion because it demands doctors provide care to ‘infants born alive after an abortion’,” said legal historian Mary Ziegler from UC Davis.
“This wording is intended to make pro-choice groups look extreme if they campaign against the bill.”
Two abortion ballots where a pro-choice result seems almost certain are in California and Vermont, where abortion rights groups are hoping not just to protect, but to expand pre-existing protections for abortion and other reproductive rights.
California’s ballot proposal asks for abortion protections to be written into the state constitution, shielding rights from the whims of changing governments, and also covers a right to contraception – something pro-choice advocates are worried about since the fall of Roe.
Considering the political makeup of California, where Democrats outnumber Republicans three to one in the assembly and the senate, most observers are expecting a win for abortion rights. A recent poll showed a 71-18 margin for those in favor of the amendment among registered voters in California. Among them, 35% of Republicans backed the referendum, too.
Similar to California, Vermont’s measure looks to shore up pre-existing abortion protections in the state’s constitution, with its ballot proposal asking to add a line to the constitution: “That an individual’s right to personal reproductive autonomy is central to the liberty and dignity to determine one’s own life course and shall not be denied or infringed unless justified by a compelling state interest achieved by the least restrictive means.”
It, too, looks to be an easy win in a state so pro-choice even the Republican governor supports the amendment.
But it is Michigan where the stakes feel highest this November. Its political battle for abortion rights centers around a 1931 abortion ban law that was written pre-Roe, and whether it can spring back into action.
Three-quarters of a million Michiganders brought the ballot initiative, hoping to persuade voters to make the old ban unviable by enshrining protection for abortion in the state’s constitution.
Republicans, perceiving a threat, already tried to block the referendum by claiming the signatures collected were incorrectly spaced, a decision quickly dismissed by the state supreme court. The anti-abortion lobby knows 64% of Michiganders in a recent poll specifically said they support adding a constitutional protection for abortion through the ballot initiative – and more general polling has also shown broad support for abortion rights, with 55% of Michiganders believing it should be mostly legal versus 39% who believe it should be mostly illegal, according to the same New York Times study.
That 16-point margin would “put Michigan in the company of states like Illinois, Minnesota and California when it comes to abortion rights”, Ziegler said.
Still, pro-choice campaigners are hesitant to view the Michigan ballot as a clear win, especially with huge amounts of money pouring into the campaign on both sides in a state that is deeply purple – tending to elect Democrats to the Senate and the presidency but Republicans for statewide office.
“[Abortion support] is not necessarily partisan or evident through polls – and ultimately, without deep communication and education we can’t pre-determine success or failure,” said Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.
“If Kansas showed us anything, it’s that we don’t know how voters will go.”