Her Team Helped Beat Back Kansas' Abortion Ban. Here's What She Wants Other States to Know
Ashley All wasn’t sure she wanted her three young daughters — 12, 10 and seven years old — to come to Tuesday’s election night watch party. There was a chance it could be a deeply depressing night. For the last eight months, All had been working, as part of Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, to defeat an effort to strip the right to abortion from the state constitution. Hard-right lawmakers in the Kansas legislature passed the amendment back in January 2021, but in order to change the state’s constitution, it had to be ratified by Kansas voters. To stack the odds in their favor, the legislators put the measure on an August primary ballot, a time when only die-hard partisans typically turn out to vote. What limited polling there had been of the race indicated it would be close: pollsters forecasted about 47 percent of voters were in favor of amending the constitution to eliminate the right to abortion, 43 opposed, and 10 percent unsure.
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In the wake of the Dobbs decision, and the catastrophic cascade of state bans that followed, the Kansas vote took on an even greater significance: it would be the first time voters themselves would get to weigh in on the court’s decision to end Roe and fifty years of federal protection for abortion. The night of the vote, All decided to bring her kids to the party — if they lost, she reasoned, they’d just eat snacks in the hotel room, but if they won, she wanted her daughters to be there. Shortly after the polls closed, it was clear she’d made the right decision: in a thundering victory for women and reproductive rights advocates, Kansans rejected the proposed ballot measure 59 percent to 41 percent. The win offered a desperately needed shot in the arm for a demoralized majority of Americans who support the right to abortion access. Already, some are floating the idea of popular referendums on abortion in states like Texas, where abortion is virtually outlawed. A New York Times analysis after Kansas’ vote suggested that if every state put it to vote, abortion would be legal in 40 of 50 states. But how replicable is Kansas’ success, really? Rolling Stone spoke with All about how the campaign managed to pull off a victory in Kansas, and what advice she has for advocates in other states.
There has been a reaction that if this can happen in this deep red state, but the picture is a little more nuanced. (Kansas has a Democratic governor, for instance, but hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since Lyndon B. Johnson.) How would you describe the political landscape in Kansas?
It’s absolutely more complicated and nuanced than that. I would probably describe it as a moderate, and independent state. We have some interesting ”free state” roots from back when we first came into the Union. Our neighboring state, Missouri was a slave state, and there were a lot of really bloody battles between Kansas and people in Missouri who wanted to Kansas to be a slave state. We did not want to be a slave state and came into the Union as a free state.
What do you know about the breakdown of the vote? Was it exceptionally high turnout from Democrats that drove this, or was this Constitutional amendment too extreme for Republicans?
We’re still digging through to see who actually showed up. In Kansas, 44 percent of our registered voters are Republican, 26 percent are Democrat — so, obviously, we cannot win an election without people who are not Democrats. And then 29 percent are “unaffiliated,” which means they’re registered to vote but don’t affiliate with a party. And they actually outnumber Democrats. Our challenge was: This question was put on a primary election ballot, at a time when unaffiliated voters do not vote. They don’t vote in August, because they don’t elect party candidates. We really had to make sure that we were talking to unaffiliated voters — and they are a diverse group of people. It’s not like all unaffiliated voters behave the same, or lean left, or lean right. They are very complicated. And we had to make sure that we were communicating with them directly, as well as Democrats, as well as moderate Republicans, because we needed as many people as we could to show up and vote.
Did you offer different messages to those different constituencies?
In 2019, the Kansas Supreme Court found that Kansans have this broad right to personal autonomy in our Bill of Rights — personal autonomy to make decisions about your health care, about your body, about your makeup of your family, about your future, whatever. And within that women obviously have the right to make decisions about their health care, pregnancy, and to access abortion. So we started there. We were working to protect the constitutional rights and freedom of Kansas women to make decisions about their bodies and about their health care. That was really the unifying message for the campaign. And we did not really have to change that depending on the target audience.
Polling last year showed over 60 percent of Kansans support access to abortion. They probably have varying beliefs about it, but, broadly speaking, they support access. Working to find common ground and a shared value that we could communicate to voters was the important part of this, and the shared value is: protecting the constitutional rights and freedom of people to make decisions about their bodies.
Roughly 60 percent of voters ended up rejecting the measure, which is in line with national polling on abortion issue as well. But polls ahead of the race in Kansas indicated it would be much closer. Did you buy that it was closer, or were you always confident?
If this amendment had been on the general election ballot, I would have been more confident going into Election Day because you [would] have a much broader and a much larger group of voters. We were working specifically with a primary election turnout so we were being incredibly cautious.
The poll that came out was — I can’t remember what it’s called — it had “Yes” at 47 percent. And I think we were at 43 or something. They probably made some assumptions about turnout based on history. We were all looking at a primary election turnout that is pretty small, typically, and pretty conservative. And we did that, because we’re trying to be realistic about our odds and know what we needed to do to win. But, yes, I thought that we always had a path to win. I grew up here and worked in Kansas politics for 18 years, then statewide partisan campaigns. And I know enough not to get overly confident. Things don’t always go our way, obviously, as a Democrat in Kansas.
You’ve talked about finding common ground with voters across diverse voting blocs. What blocs are you referring to and how did you do that?
We worked very hard to build a coalition of organizations across the state that could do a lot of the organizing work in their own communities. We worked with organizations that focus specifically on moderate Republicans. One is called Mainstream Coalition, they’ve been active for over a decade, and their specific goal is fighting extremism in the Republican Party. There’s an organization called Women for Kansas, that’s a nonpartisan organization that started when Governor Brownback was governor. He ran our state budget into the ground, and there were a lot of cuts to public schools, and Women for Kansas established themselves as a group that focused on public education. New Frontier project, which specifically focuses on young Latino voters in southwest Kansas — they did a lot of organizing, we didn’t win all those counties, but we were really close, compared to what a Democrat would typically be.
Our organization was the support structure, we were able to help them with messaging, and Helena, our field director, was able to provide them with literature and walk lists and all of the infrastructure that they needed. And they were able to work with their people, their local activists, local voters to really execute in the communities.
This effort — and your campaign — had been in progress for more than a year. How did it change over time? What changed after Dobbs?
When SB8 passed, people and organizations really did see that there was a threat to people’s personal autonomy and people’s ability to make health care decisions and decisions about abortion. I think that was motivational for people and helped us motivate organizations to get involved and help mobilize a lot more people just because they saw what was happening around them. Obviously, that came to a crescendo into the June 24 [Supreme Court] decision. We raised $30,000 in June before the decision, and $100,000 on the day of the decision itself. Before the decision, we were averaging roughly 50 volunteers canvassing a week, and after the decision, we were up at roughly 500 a week.
This ballot measure was written in a purposefully misleading way. How did you talk to voters about that? There were also text messages sent that were trying to convince pro-choice voters to vote YES. What do you know about those efforts?
It has been a constant stream of misinformation and confusion, the amendment language is incredibly confusing. It really took a lot of work over the course of the year both communicating with reporters and our volunteers having those conversations at the door explaining and clarifying for voters. The supporters of the amendment struggled with how to communicate about it, even though they were the ones that wrote it. I don’t think they accounted for the fact that the vast majority of Kansans support access to access to abortion, so they couldn’t sell it as a ban on abortion because that’s unpopular, so they spent all this time talking about how it wasn’t a ban. I think ultimately, that’s pretty confusing for a lot of people regardless of what side you’re on. We did a better job clearly communicating with our folks that the no vote protected and constitutional rights of women. By the time that those like last minute, desperate text messages came out, we’d done so much communication — paid communication, earned communication, voter contact, mail — people really understood what a vote Vote NO meant and what a vote YES meant. So I think it just made people angry.
Is this a model? What advice do you have for other states where advocates may be organizing against similar ballot measures? In Kentucky for example?
Coalition building is absolutely critical. No matter where you live, whatever state you’re in — I don’t care if you’re in New York, California, Montana, or Kentucky — coalition building is critical. You’ve got to bring a lot of different voices to the table, and make sure that you’re communicating with voters across the political spectrum, because this is not a partisan issue. Voters do not see abortion as a partisan issue. We talk about it in a partisan frame, almost exclusively. And that is the wrong way to do it. You’ve got to be willing to have conversations with people across the political spectrum, in a way that allows them to have their own personal beliefs about the issue but still be willing to show up and vote to protect the rights of Americans to make decisions for themselves about abortion. And I think that that is what we did really well.
The critical thing is to be willing to have the conversation, which sounds silly, but it is a complicated issue.
Kansas is also unique because of its history: George Tiller, a Kansas doctor who was murdered by an anti-abortion zealot in 2009. Did you find that the memory of those events loomed large in the public memory? Do you think it has impacted the way Kansans feel about this issue?
It’s an incredibly complicated, extreme — violent, sometimes — history. I grew up in a little town 30 minutes away from Wichita, which is where his clinic was; which is where he was murdered, in his church. Even as a child, I wasn’t paying attention to this sort of stuff, it was just kind of in the ether. So, I do think that it played a role. And I think it made it much more difficult for people who supported the amendment to say that this wasn’t about a ban [on abortion]. Because even if you were only partly paying attention, you knew for the past 30 years, they were trying to eliminate abortion.
One of my first statewide campaigns was in 2006, a campaign for attorney general; against the [former Attorney General], a guy named Phil Kline — an extreme, extreme anti-abortion politician who, as Attorney General, went on this crusade against Dr. Tiller and others. He was the first attorney general in this country to subpoena women’s medical records from a clinic. People were so upset about the fact that he had gotten people’s medical records. And we ran an ad about it, and it never mentioned the word ‘abortion,’ but it was all about medical privacy and how he had violated that. And he lost. I was working in the Attorney General’s office in 2009 when Dr. Tiller was murdered. I was the communications director for that office and I distinctly remember I started getting calls from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, and reporters when I was at my stepkid’s birthday party at the bowling alley. It was a devastating thing.
Speaking of your children — you have four daughters and one son — can you tell me what this victory means to them?
For people in the Midwest, it was already a crisis of care. Texas already basically banned it. And Oklahoma. When the leaked decision happened, it really started to sink in that my kids may have fewer constitutional rights than I did when I was their age. That became even more real on June 24, when the decision came down. From that moment on, I know that myself, and so many others here in Kansas, just did everything humanly possible — to the detriment, probably, of my own health, working around the clock — for my kids. Because ultimately they’re going to grow up here. They might move away, but they’re going to grow up in Kansas, and they need to have the right to make decisions for themselves about their bodies, about what their future holds, and they, as women, deserve to have equal rights just like everyone else.
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