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Rights groups try to reach voters

Andrew Bahl

Topeka Capital-Journal USA TODAY NETWORK

SENECA — Driving around rural northeast Kansas, it is clear where many residents stand on the proposed anti-abortion constitutional amendment awaiting voters when they head to the polls on Aug. 2.

Driving along US-36 highway, the soybean fields are bisected no fewer than six times by large signs urging support for the amendment. When a motorist reaches downtown Seneca, there is another sign near the high school and more outside houses around town.

Even as the Nemaha County Democratic Party gathers to munch on homemade desserts, try their luck at a raffle for a new bedspread and hear from leftleaning candidates, attendees range in their views on the issue.

“We probably have both (anti-abortion and abortion-rights supporters) in

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this room,” said Bruce Larkin, who formerly represented the area in the Kansas House.

The four dozen attendees also prove that rural Kansas voters aren’t all alike when it comes to the abortion issue. And it’s one that is very much relevant, even outside of the state’s urban cores.

When she was a teacher at Nemaha Central Unified School District 115, Jo-Lene Bloom said she knew of at least three students who got abortions while enrolled, despite being in a heavily Catholic community.

“I’ve just always found it such a hypocritical thing to live in this community and have people have their yards blanketed with the signs,” said Bloom, chair of the county Democratic Party. “And yet their kids are having sex and the girls are having abortions and everything else.”

Polling suggests a majority of Kansans are opposed to an absolute ban on abortion but also may be skeptical of allowing the practice to flourish unfettered.

But the constitutional amendment vote will occur alongside the partisan primary, which consistently draws a more conservative bloc of voters, who are more likely to be anti-abortion.

Meanwhile, many residents are unaware the measure is even on the ballot at all.

“Obviously, we have a partisan perspective, because we have taken a stand that the amendment is not in Kansas’ best interest,” said Pat Willer, chair of the Douglas County Democratic Party. “But in addition, there’s a voter education piece here that’s really critically important.”

Groups ramp up efforts to oppose abortion amendment

Melinda Lavon is no stranger to maternal health — she lives it every day as a midwife and a member of the Kansas Maternal Mortality Review Committee.

It isn’t uncommon, she says, to see cases where a mother died because she didn’t have an abortion, whether by suicide or because she wasn’t healthy enough to support a pregnancy and died from heart failure.

“Seeing women die from lack of abortion care already, with the laws that we have?” Lavon said. “It’s very concerning to me.”

In some cases, Lavon works as a midwife with the same kind of women that Bloom saw in Nemaha County: Individuals who opposed Planned Parenthood all their lives learning they need an abortion in a life-or-death situation.

“That’s very confusing to people,” she said.

Vote No Kansas, which Lavon chairs, has largely focused on rural areas, texting and calling voters, distributing signs and holding events with church and civic organizations, as well as more partisan groups, like local political parties.

Meanwhile, Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, the most prominent opposition group led by the ACLU of Kansas, Planned Parenthood and others, began working in earnest in early 2022. The group began rolling out a $3 million media buy, with television advertising beginning in Kansas City, Wichita and Topeka this week.

Ashley All, a spokesperson for KCF, rejected the suggestion that their efforts had begun late, noting the group had been working “behind the scenes” for upward of a year.

“Most folks in Kansas are in the middle and support access to abortion care,” she said. “And we will absolutely be active and engaging with voters from now and prior to now until Election Day, and we are optimistic that Kansans will show up and vote no.”

Still, any campaigning against the amendment will happen without Gov. Laura Kelly, who said last month she would be focusing attention on her reelection campaign, not the August amendment vote.

“I am running for reelection as governor of the state of Kansas, and that is where I will be focusing my efforts,” she told reporters shortly after filing her paperwork to run again. Patrick Miller, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas, said this could be a missed opportunity to potentially boost Kelly’s campaign, as well as for groups working to oppose the amendment.

“I think it probably doesn’t help the no vote side if the pro-choice governor is not vocal about the issue,” Miller said.

Both sides spar over potential for an abortion ban in Kansas

The Value Them Both Coalition has also ramped up its campaign activities, kicking off a “week of action” earlier this month with events across the state to support the amendment.

The group also rolled out a slate of 200 anti-abortion doctors, who back the amendment cause.

But there is one rhetorical area opponents have seized on — whether the amendment’s passage will serve as a gateway to a total or near-total ban on abortion, such as a law passed in Oklahoma last month that restricts abortion except in certain medical emergencies.

The amendment itself doesn’t get into whether abortion should be banned, only whether such decisions should be made by the Legislature.

But opponents stress there is nothing in the amendment that would require lawmakers to include exceptions allowing abortion in the case of rape, incest or the mother’s life being endangered.

They point to legislation introduced this session by Rep. Trevor Jacobs, RFort Scott, that would ban all abortions and would make the unlawful performance of an abortion a level one felony.

That proposal didn’t advance this session and supporters of the amendment have maintained their focus remains on restrictions that have been struck down by the courts in recent years.

“Our focus has remained on Aug. 2 because without the passage of Value Them Both, no opinions will be allowed on the abortion topic in general,” Mackenzie Haddix, a spokesperson for the Value Them Both Coalition, said in an interview following a Topeka event. “Our focus remains on Aug. 2 and getting that across the finish line.”

Meanwhile, the Kansans for Constitutional Freedom ads make little mention of abortion, but rather frame the question as being one of a government mandate, with imagery evoking mask mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is dangerous and it ties the hands of doctors in Kansas,” Alan Fearey, a Wichita physician, says in one of the ads.

Activists await U.S. Supreme Court ruling on abortion case

Both sides on the amendment vote say engagement has increased markedly since the leak of a draft U.S. Supreme Court opinion indicates a majority of the court supports striking down Roe v. Wade when it rules on a Mississippi abortion case in the coming days.

Indeed, a ruling could come as soon as midweek and anticipation is high. Kansans for Constitutional Freedom said it expects a similar boost in engagement to when the leak broke, when that organization saw a doubling of volunteers.

In Wichita, demand for yard signs urging a no vote has soared, said Joseph Shepard, chair of the Sedgwick County Democratic Party.

Supply chain delays have made them an even hotter commodity, with more than a dozen people a day emailing and asking how they can display their opposition to the amendment.

“What we’re hearing when we are engaging with folks, whether it be at the doors or whether it be at events or whether it be on social media or in the community is, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize that this legislation would impact us here locally in that way,’ “ Shepard said.

Word has spread quickly in heavily liberal Lawrence, with residents displaying bumper stickers. Some even keep a packet of flyers on hand in vehicles to pass out to curious onlookers who ask about the amendment.

Douglas County routinely has one of the highest levels of voter turnout in the state, but the timing of the vote is awkward.

Students at the University of Kansas may be beginning to trickle back onto campus for the fall semester, but local officials say they had to scramble to ensure students are registered in their hometowns.

Willer said, however, the issue has resonated most strongly with younger women, who have much of their reproductive lives ahead of them.

Older women, meanwhile, may remember the debate around the time the Roe v. Wade decision came down from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973.

“There’s a difference in life experiences that guides, that people have based on age,” Willer said. “But I think an awful lot of people are coming to the same conclusion.”

‘That’s between her and God’

While many activists are intimately engaged, a far greater number of voters are unaware the amendment is even set for a vote. Lavon, of Vote No Kansas, estimated as few as a quarter of all voters she meets actually know what the amendment entails.

In Seneca, many voters say the signs scattered across the rolling northeast Kansas plains are all they’ve heard. To others, even those placards are a bit of a mystery.

“I just don’t hear anyone talking about,” said Larkin, the former state lawmaker from Baileyville.

Even if there is interest, some voters have been hesitant to advertise their position publicly — Vote No Kansas signs across Pittsburg, for instance, were stolen in recent weeks.

But while Kansas has a national reputation as a conservative, anti-abortion state, many voters prove it is far from a monolith.

Much as anti-abortion supporters exist even in liberal swaths of Wyandotte and Douglas counties, so do such voters as Scott Bailey in Nemaha County, who says he just doesn’t get all the fuss.

“I don’t have to agree with abortion or anything like that,” said Bailey, a local contractor. “It is not my place to infringe on a woman’s right. That’s between her and God.”

Embracing that nuance, activists say, is important.

Lavon noted a Wilson County voter who got a postcard from her group and said it was the first time she had gotten any piece of political mail ever.

“There are more like-minded people in the state,” she said, “even if you feel a little bit alone sometimes where you live or maybe your neighbors’ political signs don’t match your own values.”

Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at abahl@gannett. com or by phone at 443-979-6100.

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