Best time for abortion amendment vote: Summer or fall?


August or November.

The decision could be the most strategic choice lawmakers make next year in considering a constitutional amendment on abortion.

The Legislature is headed toward a showdown over a constitutional amendment that would reverse a state Supreme Court decision that found the right to an abortion is protected by the state constitution.

A constitutional amendment not only requires support from two-thirds of the Legislature, but also must be approved by the voters.

The vote in the Legislature would likely be close, but even then winning support from the general electorate will be another matter.

It’s why timing could be everything — and not everyone agrees when it would be best to put it on the ballot.

Many believe August is ideal.

It’s when Republicans are expected to turn out in higher numbers than Democrats, improving the chances of the amendment passing.

Others believe November is ideal.

It’s when it might be most useful to the GOP, driving turnout and helping Republicans win hotly contested races.

Language on the constitutional amendment is still being drafted, so no one can be certain what date will be included in the legislation.

But the behind-the-scenes debate over when it should be on the ballot is percolating as the legislative session approaches.

“Frankly, there’s a debate both ways,” said Republican state Sen. Rick Wilborn of McPherson. “I don’t know that it makes much difference.”

Some lawmakers believe the amendment would have an edge in the primary when Republicans are expected to have a vigorous contest for the U.S. Senate — or maybe not, depending on whether U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo runs.

Some observers noted that a Pompeo decision to run for the Senate could set off a series of dominos that could influence the dynamics of next year’s election and shape the decision on when the amendment should go on the ballot.

“My preference would be in August, and I believe the reasons are relatively obvious,” said Republican state Sen. Eric Rucker, an abortion opponent who is facing a primary challenge from moderate Republican state Rep. Brenda Dietrich.

“The number of people participating in a primary election traditionally is more conservative than the larger general election,” he said.

Some Republican strategists believe that while a constitutional amendment may stand a better chance of winning in August, it may put the party at risk of losing races a couple months later in the general election.

They say a constitutional amendment on the August ballot might help conservative candidates in the primary but lead to tough general election fights in the fall, especially in places like Johnson County where Democrats are making inroads.

“Many in the party view the abortion amendment as a vital tool for the general election,” said one Republican strategist who spoke anonymously to be candid.

“Republicans will potentially need every vote possible to save the Republican U.S. Senate in November,” the strategist said. “Putting the abortion amendment in the August primary only helps Democrats.”

Another operative disagreed.

“If you want the amendment to fail, put it in November. If you want the amendment to  pass, put it in August,” said the second consultant, who also spoke candidly on condition of anonymity.

A general election poses more difficulties for an amendment because there are many more voters to educate on an issue.

“People’s natural tendency is if they don’t know about something is to vote no,” the second strategist said.

“If you look at the number of people that are going to vote in the general election in a presidential year, it’s just too many people to communicate with and will cost too much,” the consultant said. “There will be too much education to do. It will fail by inertia.”

Dan Hawkins

House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins said in a recent interview that he thought the primary would be the best time for passing a constitutional amendment, but he acknowledged that there might be some disagreement.

“Those who would like to see it fail are going to want it done in the general election,” he said. “I think it’s more difficult to pass it in the general election than the primary.”

Generally, the percentage of Republicans participating in the primary has been significantly greater than the percentage of Democrats, compared to general election voting patterns.

In 2014, 34.5% of registered Republicans cast ballots in the primary, compared to 17.4% for the Democrats, data from the secretary of state’s office shows. In sheer numbers, Republicans outnumbered Democrats by about 190,000 in that primary.

In 2016, about 38.3% of registered GOP voters cast ballots, compared to about 24% for Democrats. Similar to 2014, there were about 193,000 more Republicans who participated in that primary than Democrats.

The percentage bumped up significantly for Democrats last year to about 37% when the party staged primaries for governor and in the 3rd Congressional District race.

By comparison, about 40% of Republicans participated in last year’s primary. Republicans only led Democrats by about 155,000 in last year’s primary.

In the general election, the number of voters increases vastly for both parties, although the difference in the percentage of voters participating in each party is narrower than in the primary.

Last year, about 67.4% of registered Republicans cast ballots in the general election, compared to about 64.6% for Democrats.

Three years ago during the presidential election, about 78.7% of registered Republicans participated, compared to about 71.7% for Democrats.

And in 2014, it was about 66% for Republicans compared to 55% for Democrats.

Johnson County political consultant Stephanie Sharp believes the constitutional amendment will pass regardless of whether it’s on the August or November ballot.

In the primary, the amendment could have more of a trickle effect on down-ballot candidates, potentially helping conservatives at the expense of moderates, she said.

“What I know will happen is that in a lot those races, conservatives cannot hold the seats and so they will lose to Democrats,” she said. “So really, Democrats want it in the primary, too.”

Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine said the biggest challenge still ahead is writing the constitutional amendment.

Jeff Longbine

So far, it’s unknown what the legislation will look like, although abortion opponents have signaled that it would not be an outright ban on the procedure.

It could very well look like constitutional amendments from other states that were written to preserve the Legislature’s power to regulate abortion.

“The Legislature’s main work is going to be what does the amendment say,” Longbine said in a recent interview.

He said it was difficult to assess when the amendment would have its best chances of passing.

“Ordinarily, you would think there would be a big difference in voter turnout between a primary and a general,” he said.

“But I think this election cycle is going to be very much energized on both Republican and Democrat tickets,” he said. “I don’t know that there’s going to be a big difference.”

As the legislative session approaches, both sides in the debate are already mobilizing their forces in anticipation of the vigorous debate ahead.

Kansans for Life, the Kansas Catholic Conference and the Family Policy Alliance of Kansas have been working together on the constitutional amendment.

KFL has been holding Reverse the Ruling presentations across Kansas while volunteers have walked neighborhoods in different areas.

The Catholic Conference distributed petitions to 285 churches statewide for members to sign, urging lawmakers to pass a constitutional amendment to reverse this year’s state Supreme Court ruling.

So far, the organization has collected an estimated 15,000 signatures.

“We’re working very strategically to not only rally our base but to help the middle ground understand how important this is not just on the life issue but on the broader rule-of-law issue,” said Brittany Jones, advocacy director for the Family Policy Alliance.

Abortion rights supporters, too, are bracing for a brawl.

“Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes is fighting back against an anti-abortion constitutional amendment in Kansas by educating and mobilizing our nearly 70,000 supporters in the state through teach-ins, phone banks and other events,” the group’s lobbyist, Rachel Sweet, said in an email.

“Our backing in Kansas is strong,” she said, “and we know that most Kansans support access to safe, legal abortion.”

Planned Parenthood “will be doing everything in our power to protect this right in our state constitution.”