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Kansas voted for abortion rights. What does that mean for the midterms?

The Kansas abortion rights vote shows, yet again, that red-state voters are unhappy with extremist legislative politics.

/ Managing Editor - August 24, 2022

On Aug. 2, Kansans overwhelmingly rejected a proposed amendment to their constitution that would have made it possible to ban abortion in the state.

Some observers suggest that outcome may portend good results for Democrats this fall, given the very high turnout.

Is that right? We draw on our research into political behavior and direct democracy to consider this possibility. Republicans are looking nervously at Democratic primary turnout — which was high but not out of line with recent trends. Republicans should be just as worried that votes in the referendum broke so strongly in favor of what is usually considered a Democratic position. The fact that so many independents turned out for the referendum might not portend higher-than-usual turnout in the midterms, but it does suggest that abortion rights will be a salient issue that will sway independents to vote for Democrats.

Was Kansas primary turnout especially high?

Kansas held two simultaneous elections on Aug. 2: a primary election and a referendum. Turnout in the primary election was high, but not dramatically so. About 750,000 Kansans voted in the primary: 468,000 Republicans and 282,000 Democrats. Turnout overall was 38 percent.

That’s robust, but not out of line with the growth in primary participation that Kansas has seen since 2014, as you can see in the figure below. (Only registered Democrats and Republicans — currently about 70 percent of Kansas registrants — can vote in primaries.) Between 2018 and 2022, primary participation rose by about 13 percentage points. That’s a large increase, but not much different from the 12-point increase between the 2016 and 2020 state primary elections.

Turnout in Kansas primaries, 2010-2022; Figure: Eli Rau
Turnout in Kansas primaries, 2010-2022; Figure: Eli Rau

Republicans may have hoped that economic woes and President Biden’s low approval rating would keep Democrats home. But turnout was strong, with about 56 percent of registered Democrats, more than the 53 percent for registered Republicans. Once we add together referendum-only and primary voters, we find that nearly twice as many voters came to the polls as in 2016.

Still, we can’t necessarily assume that jump will show up in November’s candidate elections as well.

How large was referendum turnout?

Very. About 170,000 votes were cast in the referendum beyond those cast in the primary races, for a total of more than 920,000, demonstrating keen interest in the abortion question.

Some registered Democrats and Republicans might have voted in the referendum and not the primary, and some primary voters might not have cast ballots in the referendum. But our research suggests that most people who vote in candidate elections also cast ballots in simultaneous referendums. Between 1961 and 2020, in 77 percent of 31 national referendums around the world that were held at the same time as candidate elections, the average drop-off for the referendum was less than five percentage points.

The high number of those who voted in the referendum suggests that even if the abortion referendum had been held independently of any candidate election, many Kansans would still have gone to the polls. This is very unusual; our research shows that referendums held on their own usually get an average turnout that’s lower than in candidate elections by nearly 19 percentage points. Drop-off was even more dramatic than that in Kansas’s 2019 referendum, on eliminating the requirement to adjust census figures to account for students and military personnel before redistricting. As you can see in the figure below, that year, fewer than 1 in 5 registered voters bothered to go to the polls.

As in Kansas, so in the rest of the world.

Turnout in referendums in Kansas, simultaneous with various elections; Figure: Eli Rau
Turnout in referendums in Kansas, simultaneous with various elections; Figure: Eli Rau

Does that suggest more Kansans than usual will vote in November?

Looking at primary turnout alone, without the referendum-only voters, it seems reasonable to predict turnout that’s in line with the 2018 midterms.

Can we infer anything from those 170,000 mainly independent voters who turned out just for the referendum — and of whom nearly 60 percent of whom voted against it?

That depends. If most of these people usually stay away from general elections, it’s possible that their willingness to vote will carry over to November and turnout will swell — presumably in the Democrats’ direction.

But if they are people who tend to turn out in general elections anyway, that’s a different story. In the last midterm elections in 2018, about 1,040,000 Kansans voted out of a total of 1,841,776 registered voters. That was about 120,000 more than the roughly 920,000 who voted in the August 2022 referendum. If the additional votes in the abortion referendum came from people — mostly independents — who generally don’t vote in primaries but do vote in general elections, then turnout in November 2022 may not be exceptionally high.

Will Kansans’ support for abortion rights help Democrats?

The real story here is that Kansans split so strongly toward a position championed by the Democratic Party: abortion rights. Democrats might find hope — and Republicans might be concerned — about the prospect that thousands of independent voters may cast ballots for Democratic candidates, feeling that their interests are closer to the Democratic Party’s positions.

Votes in 2022 Kansas primaries and abortion referendum; Figure: Eli Rau
Votes in 2022 Kansas primaries and abortion referendum; Figure: Eli Rau

Notably, the Kansas referendum is the latest in a series of ballot initiatives revealing voters’ objections to their ideologically extreme state legislatures’ policies.

For instance, in 2018, Floridians voted to restore the voting rights of some former felons. In 2020, Missourians voted to expand Medicaid in their state and Arizonans approved larger budgets for public schools. Voters in these red and purple states pushed for policies rejected by hard-right politicians who were responding to right-leaning primary voters in their gerrymandered districts.

The Kansas abortion rights vote is just another testament to red-state voter dissatisfaction with extremist legislative politics.

Eli Rau is a postdoctoral research scholar at Vanderbilt University’s LAPOP Lab.

Radha Sarkar is a PhD candidate in political science at Yale University.

Susan Stokes is professor of political science at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Center on Democracy.