One evening in early July, Shakti Rambarran called her boss from her car, crying. On the other end of the line, Taryn Gal, executive director of the Michigan Organization on Adolescent Sexual Health, felt a wave of panic at the after-hours call. The Supreme Court had just overturned Roe v. Wade, and Michigan’s 91-year-old abortion ban was on hold pending a court battle.
But Rambarran was calling with good news.
“They’re still counting signatures, but we have over 800,000 so far!” Rambarran said.
For months, Michigan canvassers had been approaching people at rallies, in parks and grocery store parking lots, to gather the 425,059 signatures they would need to put a state constitutional amendment enshrining the right to reproductive freedom on the ballot. A judge had put the state abortion ban, which wasn’t in effect before Roe was overturned, on hold in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s ruling. But abortion-rights supporters were already working on broader protections for reproductive freedom. A coalition including Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, the ACLU of Michigan, and Michigan Voices, a Black women–led group that partners with dozens of organizations representing communities often left out of the political process, crafted the initiative for the constitutional amendment. When the Supreme Court overturned Roe, a wave of momentum came from Michiganders who wanted petitions so they could sign up their neighbors. By the time the tally was finished, the campaign had collected more than 911,000 signatures—about a tenth of Michigan’s total population. After discarding signatures with flaws like mismatched addresses, the campaign submitted 753,759—the highest number ever collected for a ballot initiative in the state’s history.
“It really gave me life,” Shanay Watson-Whittaker, director of strategic partnerships for Michigan Voices, told me.
“I had people coming from different counties in Michigan to my home just to sign,” she added. “I had pregnant people come to my house just to thank us for doing this.”
That’s not the only way that this election year will make history when it comes to abortion.
A record number of abortion-related measures are on the ballot this year. Kansans will be first to vote on an anti-abortion referendum in the state’s primary August 2. And while Democrats are fond of saying that “abortion is on the ballot” in the November midterms, that will be true in a literal sense in at least five states: In Kentucky, voters will consider a measure declaring that there is no right to abortion in the state Constitution; in Montana, they’ll decide whether to grant personhood rights to infants “born alive” during an abortion; in Vermont and California, voters will decide whether to add an explicit right to reproductive liberty to the state Constitution; and in Michigan, if the signatures are certified, voters will have a chance to overrule the will of a state legislature that wants to criminalize abortion. Colorado voters may see a ballot initiative to declare abortion murder if proponents can gather enough signatures by the August 8 deadline.
“What’s happening in Michigan is incredibly exciting,” Andrea Miller, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, said. “Ballot initiatives that are citizen initiated can be a powerful tool to try to mitigate the fact that you have a legislature that is so far out of step with the views and values and needs of the majority of people in Michigan.”
From Michigan to California and Kentucky, the outrage inspired by the overturn of Roe is finding its most powerful expression in local organizing. In Kansas, voter registrations surged 1,000 percent on the day Roe was overturned. In Vermont, where many progressives were complacent about the right to abortion, at least 1,300 people reached out to volunteer for the reproductive liberty amendment after the Supreme Court decision on June 24.
“People have been coming to us in droves,” Lucy Leriche, vice president for public affairs at the Planned Parenthood of Vermont Action Fund, told me in an interview. “Independently, volunteer groups are springing up in different places in the state, wanting to work on passage of the amendment in places that had previously been very sleepy.”
Historically, ballot measures have been a way for a public that solidly supports the right to legal abortion to express that support at the polls. In the early 1990s, when the Supreme Court looked likely to overturn Roe, voters approved ballot measures to protect abortion in states like Nevada and Maryland. Even in states with conservative legislatures, voters over the years have defeated proposals that would have outlawed abortion or granted personhood to fetuses.
“There was really a clear understanding among the public that these would be outright bans on abortion,” Miller of the National Institute for Reproductive Health said. “They failed in places like Mississippi and North Dakota and South Dakota.”
But ballot measures have also been a way for abortion opponents to take aim at the state constitutional protections that form the last line of defense for abortion rights. Four states—Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee, and West Virginia, have passed measures like the one under consideration in Kansas that say abortion is not protected by the state Constitution. Those measures passed before the Supreme Court overturned Roe, when the end of legal abortion might have felt theoretical, Miller noted. The public’s recognition of the rising stakes now that Roe is gone is reflected in a nationwide poll that collected answers before and after the June 24 decision. The poll from researchers at Indiana University found that while only 5 percent of people ranked abortion as the issue most important to them before the ruling, 13 percent ranked it as their top issue after the ruling. Another series of polls conducted after the court overturned Roe found more Americans disapproved of that decision than approved of it.
While public opinion about abortion is complicated by the fact that a lot of people lack a basic understanding of how it works, majorities of the population—even in conservative states like Texas—oppose the strict abortion bans passed by their legislatures. It’s tempting to see ballot measures as the ultimate democratic corrective to gerrymandered state legislatures and a Supreme Court majority that’s out of step with the will of the majority. But not every state allows citizens to bring forward a ballot initiative. Of all the abortion-related measures on the ballot this year, only Michigan’s was initiated by citizens rather than by a state legislature. Once a measure is on the ballot, the outcome could depend on how hard the state’s legislature has made it to vote.
The Kansas referendum is a case study in how Republican legislatures can use voter suppression to influence the outcome of a ballot measure. The state’s Republican legislature scheduled the anti-abortion referendum for the August 2 primary, when turnout tends to be half of what it is in the general election, and when Republicans have highly contested races for top political posts that Democrats don’t have. About 30 percent of Kansas voters are unaffiliated with any political party, which means they’re not used to voting in primaries, and may be unaware that they are, in fact, allowed to vote on ballot measures even during a primary. Kansas law closes voter registration three weeks before an election, which disenfranchises a significant number of people each year, according to Sharon Brett, legal director of the ACLU of Kansas.
“The deck is completely stacked against people who are on the no side of this vote,” Brett said.
The Kansas state legislature proposed the ballot measure after a 2019 state supreme court ruling that found there is a right to abortion in the state Constitution. That decision has allowed Kansas abortion clinics to remain open, even as many nearby states have shut down access. If the amendment passes, it would allow anti-abortion lawmakers to pursue their goal of a total ban on abortion. The stakes have prompted millions of dollars in donations to both sides, though opponents of the amendment have raised more money. Most of the donations in support of the anti-abortion amendment have come from Catholic dioceses. There are early signs that abortion rights supporters might overcome the odds. In Douglas County, home to the liberal-leaning city of Lawrence, advance voting numbers show the county will shatter any primary record.
“I think people are mad; I think people are looking for something to do,” Nigel Morton, a senior canvass organizer with the reproductive justice group URGE, said. “In Kansas, very uniquely, we have something that people can do, something tangible.”
Vermont, California, Michigan
While organizers in Kansas fend off an attempt to ban abortion, advocates in Vermont, California, and Michigan are moving to enshrine a sweeping vision of reproductive freedom into their state Constitutions. Vermont’s proposed amendment, which has been in the works since 2018, affords every Vermonter the right to “personal reproductive liberty.”
“We wanted it to include more than just abortion,” Leriche said. “We were looking at it from a reproductive justice perspective.”
Michigan’s amendment would protect a state constitutional right to reproductive freedom, which would include “the right to make and effectuate decisions about all matters relating to pregnancy, including but not limited to prenatal care, childbirth, postpartum care, contraception, sterilization, abortion care, miscarriage management, and infertility care.” California’s proposal would protect “reproductive freedom,” defined to include abortion and the right to choose or refuse contraception.
In Vermont, where 70 percent of the population supports legal abortion, opponents of the reproductive liberty amendment have described their fight as a “David-and-Goliath situation.” To try to sway voters, they’ve pointed to extreme hypothetical scenarios.
“I think the elevator speech is asking ourselves: Do our Vermont beliefs and values support an unlimited right to a third trimester abortion up until the time of birth and locking that right into our Constitution?” Vermont state Representative Anne Donahue, a spokesperson for the anti-abortion campaign Vermonters for Good Government, said in an interview.
While Donahue acknowledged that there’s no evidence that the kind of abortions she describes are happening in Vermont, that hasn’t stopped the campaign from making this scenario the top talking point on their website.
“Sure, it may be hyperbole a little bit to say the day of birth,” Donahue acknowledged. But she wants Vermont voters to understand that this amendment would go further than the protections in Roe. Supporters of the measure agree—and they say that’s a good thing, because they want to prevent forced sterilizations and ensure unfettered access to abortion and contraception.
While the process for amending the Vermont Constitution requires both houses of the state legislature to approve the measure twice before it goes to the public, the bar is much lower in Colorado. That has meant a revolving door of unpopular efforts to grant personhood rights to fetuses, which have been soundly defeated in the state, beginning in 2008. In 2020, abortion opponents tried to pass a 22-week ban by referendum, but 59 percent of voters rejected it—a higher percentage than voted for the winning Democratic candidates President Joe Biden and Senator John Hickenlooper. This year, Colorado abortion opponents are trying to muster the 124,632 signatures required to put a measure to define abortion as murder on the ballot.
For supporters of abortion rights in Colorado, there’s been a silver lining to the perennial attempts to restrict abortion on the ballot. Since 2008, organizers have been going door to door speaking to voters about the importance of upholding the right to abortion in the state.
“We feel like we were ahead of the curve,” Karen Middleton, president of the abortion rights group Cobalt, said. “Our state was deep in the weeds on abortion politics well before other states across the country and that’s just because of the ballot measure landscape that we were in.”
Earlier this year, the Colorado legislature passed a sweeping law to protect access to abortion and contraception in the state. Based on the losing track record of anti-abortion ballot measures, Middleton said she doesn’t see this latest initiative as much of a threat.
She said that one thing seems to be as true in Colorado as it is in Kansas, Vermont, Michigan, and elsewhere: People who support abortion rights are mobilizing, and they’re doing so close to home, in numbers that organizers have never seen before. In Kentucky, a coalition of reproductive health, rights, and justice groups are launching a campaign to defeat the anti-abortion measure on the November ballot. Montanans, too, are rallying against that state’s ballot measure and in favor of shoring up the constitutional right to abortion recognized by the Montana supreme court in 1999.
“People are on fire,” Middleton said.