In a conference room at the Sheraton in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, people screamed, whooped, cheered and cried as a vote to protect abortion rights in Kansas’s state constitution came down late on Tuesday night.
And it wasn’t just Democrats.
James Quigley, 72, a retired doctor and a Republican from Johnson county, sat on his own drinking a glass of white wine after hearing the news. “Abortion is a much more nuanced issue than anti-choice individuals would have you think,” he told the Guardian. “It is deeply personal, sometimes tragic, but also sometimes a liberating decision – and we should trust women, their physicians, and their God on that,” he said.
“We could feel it – we’ve been feeling it for weeks,” said Marcia Corbett, 71, a swing voter and local business owner, before the vote came in.
The result had been eagerly awaited, as Kansas was the first state in the country to put abortion rights on the ballot since Roe v Wade, which federally guaranteed them, was overturned by the supreme court. It came after weeks of uncertainty, in a race in which misinformation abounded and tactics got ugly.
The victory – and its sheer scale in a usually reliably Republican and socially conservative state like Kansas – has sent shockwaves through the United States and provided a shot in the arm for efforts to protect abortion rights under siege across America.
In Kansas, that fight had gotten dirty. On Tuesday, a former Republican congressman was linked to messages targeting voters with an anonymous, misleading text encouraging people to vote yes to protect abortion – when in fact a yes vote would have overturned a constitutional right to abortion. Vandals also spray-painted the walls of a Catholic church weeks earlier, with the phrase, “My body, my choice.”
Nor had victory seemed certain on the day of the vote.
On Tuesday, as voting began, the mood seemed amicable in Douglas county on a hot, sticky day, where temperatures consistently threatened to hit the hundreds. Polling booths in Lawrence and Eudora saw a steady drip of voters, even in the middle of the day, with dozens of voters lining up to vote at any given time. Many were unaffiliated, but turned up just to vote in the referendum.
At the Eudora community center in Douglas county, Patrick Perry, 43, a mechanic and registered Republican, said he was voting no. A veteran who had fought in Iraq, he said he was voting due to his own “personal circumstances” – his wife needed an abortion in a medical emergency during their marriage, in a pregnancy that would have otherwise taken her life. But he didn’t expect Kansas to side with him. “We’re a Republican state,” he said. “And we don’t generally vote that way.”
But on a night of huge turnout, Kansas voted to protect abortion in the state’s constitution, with the no vote securing a whopping 59% to 41% of the anti-abortion movement.
At the beginning of the night, the mood had been cautiously hopeful at the Kansas for Constitutional Freedom event in Overland Park, with the no vote ahead from the start. “We’re in the lead, and no is better than yes!” a young girl said to her mother, from next-door Missouri. The two had been canvassing together for weeks.
The Democratic congresswoman Sharice Davids stood up to speak early in the night, telling the audience of about 100 people: “The [supreme court] decision definitely felt like a gut punch to a lot of people in our community … But we stood up and got to work.”
Following speeches, all eyes in the room were on a television projection blaring MSNBC’s elections statistics guru Steve Kornacki, whose voice was barely audible over the sounds of people chattering, drinking and bursting into cheers whenever a county’s no vote was called.
“Imagine how good we are going to feel when we beat the anti-abortion movement and the Republicans, who lied at every turn,” state congresswoman Stephanie Clayton said.
“I feel really good right now,” said Leslie Butsch, who had tears in her eyes by 8.30pm. She was watching as the vote in Johnson county first showed signs of leaning heavily towards no, after weeks of spending her evenings knocking on doors there. An hour later, when the result came through, she was one of the few people without a celebratory drink in her hand – she’d just spent all her cash tipping the bar staff in a flurry of happiness.
“I feel overwhelmed with gratitude. Today we learned that organizers are more powerful than ever. We did the impossible,” she said.
State senator Dinah Sykes burst into tears when the vote was called, covering her mouth and showing friends goosebumps on her arms. “It’s just amazing. It’s breathtaking that women’s voices were heard and [that] we care about women’s health,” she said.
She knew that the vote would be close in a state that gave Trump a 15 percentage point lead over Biden in the 2020 election. “But we were close in a lot of rural areas and that really made the difference – I’m just so grateful,” she said.
Ashley All, the spokesperson for KCF, said the success of their campaign was testament to non-partisanship – and other states should take heed. “It will be interesting for other states to watch this, and see this is not a partisan issue,” she said.
Joe Biden made a statement on the result late on Tuesday. “Voters in Kansas turned out in record numbers to reject extreme efforts to amend the state constitution to take away a woman’s right to choose and open the door for a statewide ban,” the president said.
“This vote makes clear what we know: the majority of Americans agree that women should have access to abortion and should have the right to make their own healthcare decisions.”
Meanwhile, the defeated anti-abortion group Kansans for Life sent out an email to supporters following the vote, sharing their dismay. For a movement that has been on the rise in America – since before Roe was overturned, and after – it was clear they had suffered a powerful blow.
“The mainstream media propelled the left’s false narrative, contributing to the confusion that misled Kansans about the amendment,” it said, and vowed to fight on. “Our movement and campaign have proven our resolve and commitment. We will not abandon women and babies.”