When it was clear, late on election night, that a majority of Kentucky voters had rejected a measure that would have carved the right to abortion access out of the state’s constitution, Tamarra Wieder, the director of Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates of Kentucky, headed to a dive bar in Louisville to celebrate. The win wasn’t unexpected, but the reception her team got at the bar was. “They all came over to our table and cheered us,” Wieder remembers. “We started bawling.”
“We felt very strongly going into this election that we were going to win because of all of the research, all of the data, and all of the years [of organizing],” Wieder later told Rolling Stone. “Our results showed what we already knew to be true: Kentucky supports abortion access, and this issue transcends political lines.”
More than a week after that emotional victory, abortion is still illegal in Kentucky. But for the first time since the Supreme Court struck down federal protections this summer, there are glimmers of hope on the horizon: On Tuesday, Kentucky’s Supreme Court heard arguments in a case — deliberately scheduled for after voters weighed in on the referendum — that will decide whether the state’s bans can be temporarily lifted while advocates challenge their legality in court. (The justices have not issued a decision yet.)
Even more importantly: after decisive wins not just in Kentucky, but in Vermont, California, Michigan, and Montana, advocates are increasingly optimistic that there is a clear roadmap to claw back access in a number of states where it is currently banned. At least one organization is now working with that explicit mission — assisting efforts to restore access via popular referendums — in mind. Families United for Freedom, founded by Dr. Rachael Bedard after the Dobbs decision, played an active role supporting pro-choice referenda first in Kansas, and later Kentucky, Michigan, and Montana. Ashley All, formerly of Kansans For Constitutional Freedom, now a senior advisor to the group, confirmed its plans to continue that work in upcoming election cycles.
What last week’s election results proved is that voters — even in the reddest states — are broadly supportive of reproductive freedom, even as the lawmakers they have sent to their state legislatures are not. “More than anything, what these ballot referendums have shown is how out of sync many state lawmakers and state houses are with their constituents,” Planned Parenthood president Alexis McGill Johnson tells Rolling Stone.
Ballot measures, McGill-Johnson says, “have always been part of our strategy.” But she cautioned that each state has its own laws, idiosyncrasies and political quirks to contend with. “I think we need to make sure that we are learning some lessons on the fights and the tactics and strategies in every state, while remembering that every state is going to be unique, and every election is going to be unique. And we’re going to have to continue to use these as opportunities to build power and educate voters.”
Today, abortion is banned outright in 11 states. Six of those states — Arkansas, Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, and South Dakota — allow citizens to propose a statute or constitutional amendment if they collect enough signatures. But many states where abortion is severely restricted or endangered lack a citizen-initiated process: Texas, for example, requires a two-thirds vote in each legislative chamber to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot. (Similar laws exist in Louisiana, Alabama, and Tennessee.) That doesn’t mean lawmakers in those states don’t intend to try: Texas State Rep. James Talarico shared with Rolling Stone a bill he is introducing this session that would repeal laws currently banning abortion in his state.
Republican lawmakers who strong-armed abortion bans into law may have been surprised by Tuesday’s results, but what those results showed is that abortion is even more popular than many Democrats realized — including some who preemptively fret the party had overestimated the issue’s importance to voters.
In every single state where it was on the ballot, abortion outran the Democrat. In Vermont, a constitutional amendment enshrining reproductive rights won the support of 77 percent of voters, while the Democratic candidates for Senate and House were elected with 69 and 63 percent of the vote, respectively. In California, Proposition 1 passed with 66 percent of the vote, more than the Democratic candidate for Senate (who won 60 percent of the vote) and governor (58 percent). In Michigan, where Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer won by 10 points, the abortion rights ballot measure won by 14. In Montana, an amendment that raised the prospect of criminalizing doctors and nurses was rejected by a four-point margin, the Democratic candidate for Congress lost by 3.3 points. In Kentucky, where Amendment 2 won by four points, the Democrat’s candidate for Senate lost by 22.
None of it, unfortunately, was enough to make a difference at the national level — a dynamic that is becoming familiar to Democratic voters. President Barack Obama also campaigned on a promise to codify the Supreme Court decision protecting abortion rights, repeatedly telling voters, “The first thing I’d do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act.” But when he took office, he backed off the pledge, saying it was “not [the] highest legislative priority.” President Bill Clinton made the same unfulfilled promise to voters. President Joe Biden is the latest to renege on promises, made on the midterm campaign trail, that his party would “Restore Roe.”
Asked last week what voters can expect his party to do on abortion rights after those stunning election results, Biden told a reporter: “I don’t think they can expect much of anything.” Pressed about the party’s repeated promise to codify Roe if voters turned out, Biden replied simply: “I don’t think there’s enough votes.”
If the election proved one thing it is that, across the country, there are enough votes to restore reproductive rights — even if there aren’t in Congress.