Originally published in Vox on November 11, 2022.
Americans voiced their preference for abortion rights on Tuesday, casting votes in support of reproductive freedom everywhere they appeared on the ballot: Kentucky, Michigan, Vermont, Montana, and California.
Counting a pivotal ballot measure Kansas voters weighed in on in August, reproductive rights have been on the ballot in six states since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June. Each time, abortion rights supporters have won.
While Democratic candidates running on abortion access also did extremely well in their contests this week, the vote tallies indicate that the ballot initiatives were often able to draw even more support than the Democratic candidates, garnering votes from individuals who otherwise cast ballots for Republicans, libertarians, or no candidate at all.
“Organizers communicated in a nonpartisan way and that was key,” said Ashley All, who served as communications director for the pro-choice coalition in Kansas. “Their messaging around personal liberty and reproductive freedom and protecting the constitutional rights of women to make the decisions for themselves resonated because it’s shared American values.”
The organizers also succeeded in winning over voters who may personally oppose abortion or have reservations about it. While a majority of Americans say they believe Roe v. Wade should be upheld, roughly one-third of those backing legal abortion do not personally support it. And many who support abortion rights believe it should only be legal in cases of rape or a threat to a woman’s life.
Ethan Winter, the research and strategy director for Families United for Freedom, an abortion rights political action committee, emphasized that the ballot measure campaigns all leaned heavily on persuasion tactics.
“Montana is a heavily Republican state, Kentucky is a heavily Republican state,” he told Vox. “All of these victories depend on Republicans voting for you, on people who self-identify as ‘pro-life’ voting for you.” In Kansas, where Trump won handily in 2020 and registered Republicans outnumber Democrats almost two to one, the pro-choice side won by a nearly 20-point margin. Even California’s measure codifying abortion rights in the state constitution passed this week with roughly 6 percent more support than other Democrats currently have on the statewide ballot.
Abortion rights organizers say they hope their successes this year across diverse states inspires other leaders to follow suit. How to get issues on the ballot varies from state to state; in some cases citizens can collect signatures, while in others lawmakers have to approve turning issues over to voters. In Michigan, activists collected more than 750,000 signatures to get their abortion rights measure on the November ballot. In Montana, Kentucky, and Kansas, by contrast, Republican lawmakers had voted to place their anti-abortion measures on the ballot.
“Our resounding victory now provides a model for the future of coalition-based reproductive ballot initiatives all across the country,” declared Nicole Wells Stallworth, the executive director for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, in a press conference on Wednesday.
“I’m hoping other states are looking at the outcomes of last night,” Jodi Hicks, the head of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, told Vox. “And looking at what they too can do and really start polling, message-testing, and laying the groundwork.”
Voters don’t like big status quo disruptions, and overturning Roe was just that
This past summer when Kansas voters went to cast their ballots, advocates for abortion rights were cautiously optimistic they’d have one advantage on their side: status quo bias.
Americans tend not to like big, disruptive changes, which is why political science researchers believe they observe a “status quo bias” when people weigh in on ballot initiatives. Voters often reject measures they perceive as introducing major change.
Anti-abortion politicians in Kansas had proposed an amendment to the Kansas constitution that would have overruled a Kansas Supreme Court decision affirming Kansans’ right to end a pregnancy. Passing the amendment would have given state lawmakers the power to ignore this ruling and legislate a total abortion ban in the wake of the Dobbs decision.
Activists in Kansas, in other words, could frame the amendment as an effort to take away rights Kansans currently enjoyed under their state constitution, something they called extremist, radical, and disruptive. This general electoral instinct to avoid major shifts to the status quo, organizers believe, helped them defeat the amendment in August.
While the abortion ballot choices on Tuesday weren’t quite as straightforward as asking voters whether they want to remove an existing state constitutional protection, organizers did lean on “status quo bias” messaging in their respective campaigns. In Michigan, for example, though Proposition 3 was an affirmative amendment to codify reproductive freedom in Michigan’s constitution, activists framed their language around the idea of restoring the rights of Roe v. Wade, of bringing back the reality Americans had known for five decades.
In Kentucky activists similarly emphasized a theme of restoration. “We focused our messaging on restoring access and making sure things do not go any further in the extremist direction,” explained Rachel Sweet, who led the Kentucky coalition organizing to defeat the anti-abortion amendment.
Abortion rights organizers used state-specific messaging to win
Activists and researchers experimented with different messages and messengers to win their ballot initiative campaigns, deploying themes that were specific to the histories and values of each state.
In Montana, for example, organizers looked to capture the deep sense of pride voters have in their state’s right to privacy. “Montanans of every ideology here are deeply proud of our constitution which enshrines the right to privacy,” said Hillary-Anne Crosby, a spokesperson for the coalition organizing to defeat Montana’s anti-abortion ballot measure. “This amendment really came down to private medical decisions.”
Montana’s referendum — known as LR 131 — was spurred by a bill Republican lawmakers passed last year asking voters to affirm that an embryo or fetus is a legal person with the right to medical care if it survives an abortion or delivery. Under the law, health care providers could face up to 20 years in prison and a $50,000 fine if they failed to provide such care.
While Republican lawmakers framed the measure as a moral choice for anyone opposed to abortion, reproductive rights advocates argued that the proposal itself had little to do with abortion and everything to do with palliative care and compassion for bereft parents.
That’s because infanticide is already illegal in Montana, and the idea that infants were being killed after an abortion is intentionally misleading, part of a longstanding effort by anti-abortion leaders to depict “botched abortions” that they say can result in live births.
Under current Montana law, if an infant has a fatal prognosis parents can spend those final and few moments holding their dying child and saying goodbye. Under LR 131, a doctor would have been obligated to take the infant away to attempt medical treatment, even if they knew nothing would work.
In mobilizing support against the referendum, advocates chose to de-emphasize abortion, often not mentioning the word at all. They ran ads featuring neonatologists, obstetricians and pediatricians, and grieving parents who said elected officials wanted to politicize their tragedies. Leaning in on status quo bias, doctors gave media interviews explaining how the proposed amendment would threaten the existing rights of parents and criminalize “the current practice of medicine.”
“We’re not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes, we’ve been clear that one of the values of Compassion for Montana Families is uplifting and empowering reproductive and sexual health care,” Crosby told Vox. “But we felt abortion language was a misleading, deceptive thing to be talking about, and we wanted to accurately reflect what the bill in question would mean.”
This doesn’t mean Montana advocates aren’t celebrating the outcome as a victory for reproductive rights. “Conservatives tried to make abortion a boogeyman and people didn’t buy it,” Crosby added.
Vermont organizers also emphasized, in their campaign messaging, doing things “the Vermont way” — referring to the state’s independent and nonpartisan ethos.
“Vermont is sometimes seen as this very liberal place because of Bernie Sanders or whatever, but historically Vermont has held a Republican majority as well as the governor’s seat, and Vermonters regularly split their tickets,” said Lucy Leriche, a spokesperson for the abortion rights coalition in Vermont.
Vermont, unlike most other states, also enjoyed 50 years of unlimited and unrestricted reproductive freedom. While states were permitted under Roe v. Wade to restrict pregnancies after viability (typically around 24 weeks in a pregnancy) Vermont lawmakers never did.
“The [anti-abortion] side is very quick to talk about all the bad things that would happen if you don’t restrict abortion rights, but in Vermont we never had any restrictions, so those arguments really do fall flat,” Leriche told Vox. “They don’t stick because we know better.” The measure to codify reproductive rights in Vermont’s constitution passed on Tuesday with 77 percent of the vote.
Abortion rights activists haven’t historically focused on state ballot measures
Shoring up abortion rights on the state level was not something reproductive health advocates prioritized when Roe v. Wade provided a nationwide constitutional protection. Anti-abortion activists would occasionally push state ballot measures, often in deep red states, but fighting them at the polls seemed less critical than challenging them in court for violating Roe.
“Ballot measures are a space where there hasn’t been a ton of money on the pro-choice side and I think Families United for Freedom is indicative of more money moving in, and what I hope to be a larger trend,” said Winter. Families United for Freedom raised about $2 million this cycle, contributing $600,000 in Kansas, $275,000 in Kentucky, $500,000 in Michigan and $275,000 in Montana. Rachael Bedard, the PAC’s executive director, told Vox that they partnered with and supported local grassroots organizations, providing them with polling and media support, and avoided “a super-imposed national strategy.”
Sweet, who managed the campaigns in both Kentucky and Kansas, told Vox that their success was driven by the expertise of these local grassroots leaders. “We also had a lot of volunteers who have never knocked doors for a candidate, and they don’t consider themselves super politically active,” Sweet said. “But they are concerned and motivated by this one issue.”
One key research point Families United for Freedom found is that even among voters who supported the overturn of Roe v. Wade, a majority of them want abortion to be legal to save the life of the mother and in the case of rape and incest. Even in a hypothetical scenario in which abortion was illegal, the group found, 16 percent of those who said they approve of the Dobbs decision wouldn’t want the woman who had an abortion to face penalties.
“In other words,” Bedard said, “they disapprove of abortion but less than they disapprove of criminalization.” Winning on these abortion ballot measures, Bedard said, means creating the space for someone to continue living their life as a “pro-life” person, while emphasizing that doesn’t extend to making their neighbor’s choice for them.
“We need to let voters have their own personal feelings about abortion, but invite them to join us in the fundamental belief that women should make the decisions for themselves,” added Ashley All, who joined Families United for Freedom after defeating the Kansas ballot measure. “That is pro-choice and that is a way to really bridge the gap.”