Ashley All wasn’t sure if she wanted her three young daughters, ages 12, 10, and 7, to attend the election night watch party on Tuesday. There was a risk that the evening would be quite sad. As a member of Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, All had spent the previous eight months fighting to keep the state constitution’s protection of the right to an abortion intact. The amendment was enacted by hard-right Republicans in the Kansas legislature in January 2021, but it needed voter approval to become part of the state’s constitution. The initiative was placed on the ballot for the August primary, when only ardent partisans normally cast ballots, in an effort to increase their chances of success. 47 percent of voters were predicted to be in favor of altering the constitution to eliminate the right to abortion, 43 against it, and 10% were unsure, according to the few polling that had been done on the race.
The Kansas vote had an even larger significance after the Dobbs ruling and the disastrous wave of state bans that followed because it would be the first time voters would have a say in whether or not the courts would overturn Roe v. Wade and end fifty years of federal protection for abortion. The night of the election, All made the decision to bring her children to the party because she felt that her daughters should be present if they won. If they lost, she reasoned, they could just eat snacks in the hotel room. The proposed ballot item was rejected by Kansans by a margin of 59 percent to 41 percent, making it evident that she had made the right choice soon after the votes closed. The victory provided a much-needed boost of confidence for the majority of Americans who favor the right to access abortion. In areas like Texas, where abortion is essentially prohibited, the idea of popular referendums on the topic is already being discussed. If every state put it to a vote, abortion would be permitted in 40 of the 50 states, according to a New York Times analysis after the Kansas decision. However, how scalable is Kansas’ success in reality? All was interviewed by Rolling Stone on how the campaign was able to win in Kansas and what advise she would give supporters in other states.
If it can happen in this deeply red state, it can happen anywhere, has been a common response to the referendum results, but the reality is a little more complex. For instance, Kansas has a Democratic governor but hasn’t supported a Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson. What would you say about Kansas’ political climate? There is no doubt that it is more intricate and subtle than that. I think the best way to characterize it is as a moderate, autonomous state. We have some fascinating free state roots that date back to our early days in the Union. There were many extremely brutal wars between Kansas and Missourians who wanted Kansas to be a slave state because our neighboring state, Missouri, was a slave state. We joined the Union as a free state because we did not wish to be a slave state.
What are your knowledge about the voting results? Was there unusually high Democratic turnout that caused this, or were Republicans turned off by the severe nature of this Constitutional amendment? We are presently looking through the records to see who actually arrived. We cannot win an election in Kansas without the support of those who are not Democrats since 44% of registered voters are Republicans and 26% are Democrats. The remaining 29% are unaffiliated, meaning they are registered to vote but are not members of a party. Additionally, they outnumber Democrats. Our problem was that this question was placed on the primary election ballot at a time when voters of no affiliation do not cast ballots. They don’t cast ballots in August since no party candidates are chosen. We had to be very careful to speak to the varied range of voters who identify as unaffiliated. It’s not as if all voters without affiliation behave in the same way or tend to lean left or right. They are really intricate. And we needed as many people as possible to get out and vote, so we had to make sure we were speaking with them personally, as well as Democrats and moderate Republicans.
Did you present those various constituencies with various messages?
The Kansas Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that Kansans have a comprehensive right to personal autonomy under our Bill of Rights, including the freedom to make decisions about their health care, their bodies, the composition of their families, the future, and anything else. And within that, it goes without saying that women have the right to decide how to take care of their health, have children, and access abortion. So that’s where we began. We were seeking to uphold Kansas women’s ability under the constitution to make decisions about their bodies and their health care. That was the campaign’s overarching message, in reality. Moreover, we didn’t really need to alter that based on the intended audience.
More than 60% of Kansans, according to a survey conducted last year, support abortion access. Although they certainly hold a variety of opinions on the subject, they generally favor access. The crucial element of this was working to identify common ground and a shared value that we could convey to voters, and the shared value is: defending constitutional rights and the ability of individuals to make decisions about their bodies.
The proposition was ultimately defeated by almost 60% of voters, which is consistent with AAA4 as well. Polls, however, suggested that the Kansas election would be much closer. Did you believe it was getting closer, or were you always sure? I would have felt more confidence on election day if this amendment had been on the general election ballot because you “would” have a much broader and larger group of voters. We were quite cautious because we were working primarily with a primary election turnout.
I can’t remember the name of the poll that was released, but Yes received 47% of the votes. And I believe we were at about 43. Based on previous events, they undoubtedly formed some estimates about the turnout. We were all observing a primary election turnout that is generally modest and largely Republican. We took that action because we were attempting to be realistic about our chances and understand what we needed to do to succeed. However, I did believe that we always had a chance to prevail. I spent 18 years working in Kansas politics where I grew up before moving on to statewide party elections. And I’m knowledgeable enough to avoid being arrogant. As a Democrat in Kansas, it is evident that things don’t always go our way.
You’ve mentioned identifying points of agreement with voters from various voting blocs. How did you achieve that and to what blocs are you referring? We put a lot of effort into assembling a statewide coalition of organizations that could carry out most of the community organizing. We collaborated with groups that are especially interested in working with moderate Republicans. One of them is the Mainstream Coalition, which has been operating for more than ten years with a focus on combating radicalism within the Republican Party. Women for Kansas is a nonpartisan organization that was founded under Governor Brownback’s administration. Women for Kansas developed themselves as an organization that was focused on public education after he ran our state budget into the ground and made numerous cuts to public schools. We didn’t win all those counties, but relative to what a Democrat would generally be, the New Frontier project, which specifically targets young Latino voters in southwest Kansas, did a lot of organizing.
Helena, our field director, was able to give them all of the infrastructure they required, including literature, walk lists, and message support. Our organization served as their support system. And they were able to collaborate with their neighbors, local organizers, and voters to effectively carry out their plans in the neighborhoods.
Your campaign and this endeavor have been ongoing for almost a year. How has it evolved through time? What altered following Dobbs? People and organizations saw a genuine threat to people’s personal autonomy, their capacity to make decisions about their own health care, and their ability to choose an abortion when SB8 was passed. Because they could see what was going on around them, I believe that inspired individuals and helped us inspire organizations to get engaged and mobilize a lot more people. Evidently, that culminated in the “Supreme Court” decision from June 24. Prior to the decision in June, we raised $30,000, and we raised $100,000 on the actual decision day. We were using 50 volunteers on average each week to canvass before the decision, and once it was made, that number increased to 500.
In an effort to persuade pro-choice voters that a YES vote would protect abortion, this ballot question was written in a rather misleading manner, and from what I hear, there were also intentionally misleading text messages issued. How did you assist voters in navigating the false information? The amendment language has been a persistent source of misinformation and misunderstanding. Over the course of the year, it really took a lot of work to communicate with reporters and have those door-to-door talks with volunteers to explain and clarify things for voters. Even though they were the ones who created the amendment, its proponents found it difficult to talk about it. They didn’t take into consideration the fact that the vast majority of Kansans favor access to abortion, so they spent all this time arguing that it wasn’t a ban since they couldn’t market it as such because it would be unpopular. I believe that, in the end, a lot of people, regardless of whose side they are on, find that to be pretty puzzling. We did a better job of explaining to our people how voting NO safeguarded and upheld women’s constitutional rights. By the time those last-minute, frantic text messages appeared, we had already done a lot of paid and unpaid communication as well as voter contact and mail so that people truly understood what a vote for NO and a vote for YES meant. So, in my opinion, all it did was enrage people.
Is this an example? What suggestions do you have for other places where activists might be organizing against ballot initiatives of a similar nature? Kentucky, for instance? Developing coalitions is essential. Coalition building is important no matter where you live or what state you’re in, whether it’s New York, California, Montana, or Kentucky. Since this is not a party issue, you must bring a variety of perspectives to the table and ensure that you are interacting with voters from all political perspectives. Abortion is not seen as a party issue by voters. Nearly solely, we discuss it from a partisan perspective. And doing it that way is incorrect. To defend Americans’ freedom to choose whether or not to have an abortion, you must be prepared to engage in dialogue with people from various political perspectives while allowing them to maintain their individual political convictions. And in my opinion, we executed that pretty well.
It may sound stupid, but being open to having the talk is crucial because this is a delicate matter.
Kansas is distinctive due to its past, including the 2009 murder of Kansas doctor George Tiller by an anti-abortion zealot. Did you notice how prominently those events were remembered by the general public? Do you believe that it has changed how Kansans feel about this problem? Its past is tremendously complex, extraordinarily violent, and occasionally tragic. I grew up in a small hamlet about 30 minutes from Wichita, where his clinic was located and where he was assassinated in his church. Even as a young child, I wasn’t really paying attention to this kind of information; it was just sort of floating around. I therefore believe that it had an impact. And I believe it made it much harder for those who backed the amendment to claim that it wasn’t about outlawing “abortion.” Because you knew they had been attempting to outlaw abortion for the past 30 years, even if you were only partially paying attention.
One of my first statewide campaigns was for attorney general in 2006. I ran against the “former attorney general,” Phil Kline, an ardent opponent of abortion who led a crusade against Dr. Tiller and others while serving as attorney general. He was the first attorney general in this nation to subpoena a clinic for women’s medical records. People were incredibly unhappy that he had obtained their medical records. We also launched an advertisement about it, but it never used the word abortion; instead, it focused entirely on how he had violated people’s right to medical privacy. He lost, too. In 2009, when Dr. Tiller was killed, I was a staff member in the Attorney General’s office. When I was attending my stepchildren’s birthday party at the bowling alley, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation and reporters started calling me. At the time, I was the communications director for that office. It was a terrible thing.
Can you tell me what this triumph means to your four daughters and one son, to speak of your family?
In the Midwest, there was already a care issue. Texas has essentially outlawed it already. Oklahoma is also. My realization that my children would have fewer constitutional rights than I did when I was their age really began to set in after the leaked judgment was made. When the decision was made on June 24, that became much more real. From that point forward, I realized that I had done everything humanly possible for my children, as well as so many others here in Kansas, likely at the expense of my own health. Since they will eventually raise their families here. Though they may relocate, they will still raise a family in Kansas, and they must have the freedom to make decisions about their bodies and what the future holds. They also need equal rights for women, just like everyone else.