The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and Fox News all heralded a Kansas ballot measure about a proposed anti-abortion state constitutional amendment, claiming its defeat is proof the Supreme Court helped revive democracy by returning the question of abortion to the states. These Murdoch outlets are ignoring the undemocratic nature of this ballot measure and the hurdles activists had to overcome to protect abortion access in just one state.
On August 2, Kansans overwhelmingly voted against a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have taken away abortion protections enshrined by the state Supreme Court in a 2019 decision. If approved, the amendment would have given Kansas lawmakers greater flexibility to pass abortion restrictions, even up to a complete ban from fertilization.
In the first abortion referendum since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, this win for abortion access is especially remarkable given the onerous hurdles put in place by conservative activists and politicians.
Kansas Republicans drafted the ballot measure using deceptive language to confuse voters. Anti-abortion activists attempted to remove ballot drop-off boxes ahead of the measure, citing right-wing election lies. And the referendum was scheduled during the Kansas primary elections in August, creating an uneven playing field due to primaries’ much smaller turnout compared to November elections. (There were more contested Republican races than Democratic ones in the Kansas primary, and the number of registered Republicans far outpaces the number of registered Democrats in the state.)
Also notable is that most of the money spent by the anti-abortion campaign — over $3.4 million out of the $5.4 million spent — was contributed by Catholic groups in Kansas, which are allowed to spend on ballot initiatives but not other political campaigns.
Against all of these barriers, abortion advocates were able to strike the amendment only due to grassroots organizing. Local activists went door-to-door to dispel misinformation about the amendment, encourage turnout in rural areas, and raise funds.
Yet conservative news outlets owned by the Murdoch family tried to play off the Kansas election results as proof that democracy is working, allowing states to decide on abortion as Justice Samuel Alito called for in the majority opinion of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board wrote that “democracy is working its will on the issue,” pointing to Kansas as evidence that the Supreme Court “rightly returned it [the abortion question] to the voters.” Similarly, the New York Post editorial board said the Kansas election “vindicates Dobbs … and shows democracy alive and well in America.”
On the Murdochs’ cable channels, Fox Business anchor Dagen McDowell claimed that the Kansas vote proved that the Supreme Court’s decision reflected “a return to democracy.” Fox News guest Kellyanne Conway said on America’s Newsroom that the Kansas ballot measure “is exactly what the Dobbs decision designed the next steps to be, which is kick it back to the states, let the people decide.” Responding to Rep. Beth Van Duyne (R-TX) saying voters should decide on abortion “in transparency,” Fox & Friends co-host Ainsley Earhardt added, “That's right — it just goes back to the states. … It looked like the voters’ voices were heard.”
Allowing states to decide the question of abortion glosses over the difficulty imposed by state officials to even vote in the first place. Voting restrictions in Southern states, where abortion access is especially at risk, disproportionately affect low-income people and nonwhite people. And women are greatly underrepresented in the legislative process: Just 31% of seats in state legislatures are occupied by women, while women of color comprise only 9% of state legislators.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “there is a straight line from America’s broken systems of democracy to the Supreme Court’s catastrophic majority ruling in Dobbs.” Barely a month after the Dobbs decision, these broken systems looked poised to undo abortion protections in Kansas. Media should stop framing the Kansas vote as a win for democracy when in fact it tells the story of a series of undemocratic practices thwarted — this time — by the power of community action.