Abortion amendment vote: Rural vs. Urban and where it plays


If you are looking for a roadmap to how the state constitutional amendment on abortion might unfold on Election Day, there are plenty of places to turn to as a guide.

Four times since 2014, states have approved similar constitutional amendments that would ensure abortion is not a protected constitutional right.

And each time, those amendments prevailed at the polls with the help of rural voters even while losing urban population centers in those states.

If what has unfolded in West Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama and Louisiana is any kind of an indicator, rural areas will again play an important part in whether the constitutional amendment will pass in Kansas as well on Aug. 2.

Ken Blake

Over and over again, amendments in those states lost in urban areas but carried the day in rural areas to win passage.

Ultimately, the amendments rode the support of rural residents to win approval.

It’s not very different from the general political dynamics across the country, said Ken Blake, who founded the Middle Tennessee State University Poll and surveyed Tennessee voters on that state’s amendment in 2014.

“You have urban centers that are more likely in most areas to vote Democratic and to be politically progressive or liberal,” Blake said.

“Whereas rural areas tend to be more conservative and more supportive of Republican candidates and causes,” he said.

Consider how the vote played out in these states in the last eight years:

  • In Alabama, where the amendment won decisively, it was not as successful in the state’s urban areas. The amendment lost in three of Alabama’s five most populated counties, defeated in urban areas such as Birmingham, Huntsville and Montgomery while winning in Mobile and along the Gulf Coast. It also won in Tuscaloosa County, home to the University of Alabama. The amendment won with almost 60% of the vote.
  • In Tennessee, the amendment lost in urban centers such as Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville. It did win, however, in suburban areas outside of Nashville, such as Rutherford and Williamson counties. The amendment still won overall with 53% of the vote.
  • In West Virginia, the amendment lost in the Charleston, Morgantown and Huntington areas but won in the other populated areas of Parkersburg and Martinsburg. The amendment ultimately won with about 52% of the vote.
  • Even in Louisiana, where the amendment had the support of a Democratic governor, the amendment lost in two of the state’s three most populated parishes, specifically the homes to Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The amendment prevailed in Louisiana’s three other largest parishes that are home to Shreveport, Lafayette and the suburbs west and north of New Orleans. It won with 62% of the vote.

So what happens in Kansas?

There is already a sign the election results could follow a similar path in Kansas next week.

A recent poll by co/efficient shows the amendment was performing the strongest in the largely rural 1st Congressional District, where 52% of voters surveyed said they would support the amendment.

Thirty-nine percent of voters surveyed in the Big 1st said they opposed the amendment, while 9% said they were undecided.

In contrast, the amendment did not fare as well in the 3rd Congressional District in the Kansas City suburbs, where 52% said they would oppose the amendment.

Forty-one percent supported the amendment in the 3rd District, which is now represented by the state’s only Democratic member of Congress.

There is a view that the amendment could be the weakest in the counties that Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly carried when she was elected in 2018.

If the amendment is defeated in those nine counties by large enough margins, then it could be defeated statewide, some argue.

Ethan Corson

“This amendment is not that dissimilar from putting together a coalition to win a statewide election to elect a Democrat or a moderate,” said Democratic state Sen. Ethan Corson.

“The coalition does not look that dissimilar from the coalition that Gov. Kelly put together in 2018, for example,” he said.

Corson, former executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party, said it’s a matter of opponents piling up big wins in the Kelly counties and holding down the margins of victory where the amendment will enjoy success.

“You’re looking to put together essentially a coalition of Democrats, moderate Republicans and unaffiliated voters,” he said.

Kelly Arnold, former chair of the Kansas Republican Party, agrees that it makes sense for opponents to focus on the urban areas Kelly carried in 2018.

“I think that is a strategy,” Arnold said of focusing on the population centers.

“You go where your core voter base is and for the ‘vote no’ coalition, I absolutely agree that’s in the urban areas and that’s where they’ve got to pull most of their voters.”

Kelly Arnold

In rural areas, Arnold predicted the amendment would win with supermajorities.

The difference between Kelly’s election and the amendment, he said, is the amendment is on the primary ballot not the general election ballot, a major point of controversy when lawmakers put the measure to a vote.

Critics of the amendment have long said the primary election gave the amendment a distinct advantage because primaries tend to have smaller turnouts dominated by conservative voters.

“The ‘yes vote coalition,’ most of their voters are going to be voters that have typically voted in August primaries and it will be easier to get their voters to turn out,” Arnold said.

“The vote ‘no’ coalition, a lot of their voters don’t typically vote in primaries whether that’s unaffiliateds or even say a lot of times Democrats who don’t have primaries, so you have very little turnout,” he said.

Given that dynamic, it will all be about which side can successfully get its voters to turn out, which presents another challenge to the opponents of the amendment.

Wichita State political scientist Neal Allen noted that younger voters tend to be more supportive of abortion rights, a point underscored by the recent co/efficient poll that showed that 75% of Kansas voters under 35 said they opposed the amendment.

It is also an age bracket that tends to vote less frequently than older voters, who are more supportive of the amendment.

Neal Allen

“A lot of what will matter is what kind of people turn out,” Allen said.

“The demographic that’s going to be most important here is age,” Allen said.

“The negative for people who are trying to stop the Value Them Both Amendment,” he said, “is that their strongest supporters are young people that tend to vote less in general, and especially less in races where there’s no governor or president to vote for.”

Kansas has seen more and more young voters turning out to vote in recent years, but will it be enough to offset the voting tendencies of older voters on Aug. 2?

In 2020, about 48% of young adults ages 18 to 24 cast ballots in the general election compared to nearly 77% of adults 65 and older, census data shows.

But that also was a general election when there was a lot more to vote on, including a presidential race and a campaign for the U.S. Senate.

Ashley All

Ashley All, spokeswoman for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, said her group is working with an array of organizations that target young voters.

“Young people are incredibly motivated to vote this year. We are doing all we can to make sure they understand that their constitutional rights are at stake in this election,” All said in an email.

While abortion amendments voted on in other states didn’t do well in urban centers, the measure in Kansas has a potential weak spot for opponents — Sedgwick County.

Sedgwick County is very different from other urban centers in Kansas because it has been steeped in abortion history because of the Summer of Mercy protests in 1991 and because it was the home of George Tiller, one of the country’s few providers of late-term abortions before he was murdered in 2009.

The effort to stop abortion in Kansas is so entrenched there that some believe the amendment will do much better there than in other urban places in the state.

Mark Kahrs, the Republican national committeeman in Kansas, said the issue’s history in Wichita could swing the amendment in favor of its supporters.

“It’s a very important issue to the Republican Party and to conservatives, but it is a highly emotional and important issue here in the city of Wichita,” Kahrs said.

Since the Summery of Mercy protests, the pro-life network in Sedgwick County has taken root there and its network has grown over the years, Arnold said.

“When it comes to this ballot question coming up, the network has been in place for many years,” Arnold said. “The ‘vote no’ coalition has had to start from scratch almost.”

All, from Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, said the opponents are battling for every county in Kansas.

“Every county in Kansas is critical to this vote,” All said.

“We’ve been working hard in Wichita to engage with voters across the political spectrum,” she said in an email.

“We know the majority of Kansans believe that people should have the right to make private medical decisions for themselves without government interference.

“That is true in Wichita as well,” she said.

Former Democratic state Rep. Jim Ward of Wichita said he believes it’s a tossup in Sedgwick County right now.

“The grassroots is stronger for the ‘yes’ than the ‘nos,'” he said, adding that he has a friend who said amendment supporters have knocked on her door three times.

“They’re running a traditional grassroots campaign with mail, which has been effective, honestly,” he said.

However, Ward said he believes there are voters who are quietly opposed to abortion, but will vote against the amendment out of fear it would lead by the Legislature to ban the procedure.

“There’s no way to poll that, because they’re never going to tell anybody.”

But Republicans believe that Sedgwick County is simply an outlier when compared to other urban parts of Kansas, largely because Wichita has been an epicenter of the abortion issue.

“Wichita has always been just kind of a different urban area than Johnson or Douglas or Topeka,” said former Kansas House Speaker Tim Shallenburger.

“It’ s just way more conservative.”