Abortion Access and Voting Rights: How Compromised State Democracies Allow Extreme Policy Positions
Democracy Maps Issue Brief
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dobbs case which overturned Roe v. Wade and eliminated the federal right to abortion, reproductive rights in America have been kicked back to state legislatures. These states are often passing restrictions that go far beyond any level of popular support for abortion.
It’s no coincidence that states with the most restrictive abortion laws also are likely to have the weakest democratic systems.
For example, polling shows less than 10% of the population supports complete abortion bans with no exceptions, yet this is what is being passed in state after state.
In theory, voters could hold politicians accountable but, in practice, those that now have — or are poised to implement — total abortion bans are also the states with the least democratic election and voting policies.
In states where voting rights are restricted and gerrymandering allows elected officials to choose their voters rather than allowing voters to choose their leaders, a minority can consistently dominate.
In short, in these states, people do not have the same opportunities to fight or overturn severe abortion restrictions even if public opinion is overwhelmingly on their side.
Using data from the Guttmacher Institute, a leading research and policy organization committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights, we compared our Democracy Maps landscape of state voting and election laws with the current state of reproductive rights in America.
Guttmacher Institute abortion policies map:
Democracy Map on state voting and election policies:
Key takeaways that emerge:
▸▸ Takeaway #1: States with total abortion bans are also among the lowest scoring on our Democracy Tally
According to the Guttmacher Institute, seven states currently have total abortion bans: Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas.
- Six of the seven states with total abortion bans fall into the bottom 10 of our Democracy Tally ratings, with South Dakota only narrowly avoiding the bottom 10.
- Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Oklahoma represent 4 of the bottom 5 states in our tally.
By contrast, the states that have the strongest democracies are also the most protective of reproductive freedoms.
The Guttmacher Institute categorizes 12 states as being the most protective of abortion rights: Alaska, Colorado, California, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.
- All twelve of these states rank above average in our Democracy Tally. In addition, with the exception of Alaska, Maine, Maryland and New York, 8 of these states make up the top twelve of our Democracy Tally.
While our Democracy Tally takes into account more than 40 policies that contribute to the health of democracy in a given state, certain policies contribute significantly to the extreme political environment in states with total abortion bans.
▸▸ Takeaway #2: States with total abortion bans are extremely gerrymandered, allowing politicians to appeal to a minority rather than the majority of voters.
Except for South Dakota, all of the states that currently ban abortion have redistricting processes that allow the state legislature to draw legislative maps.
Democracy Map on the independence of congressional redistricting:
The lack of an independent process for redistricting leads to extreme gerrymandering, where politicians can pick and choose their voters rather than voters choosing their leaders. Additionally, voters in gerrymandered noncompetitive districts may feel their vote does not matter and be dissuaded from voting.
▸▸ Takeaway #3: States with total abortion bans have low voter turnout.
States with total abortion bans also tend to have lower than average voter turnout. All seven states with total abortion bans —Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas — had below average voter turnout in the 2020 election.
Additionally, Arkansas and Oklahoma represent the two lowest voter turnout states in the country, with barely over 1 in 2 voters casting a ballot.
Compare this to almost 4 in 5 voters turning out in a state like Maine.
Democracy Map on voter turnout percentage:
Voter turnout is an important measure of the participation in and access to elections within a given state and is often a result of the presence or lack of barriers to voting that a state has in place.
In short, politicians can pass total abortion bans despite their unpopularity because the systemic barriers to voting mean that few can or do turn out, allowing minority opinions to go unchallenged.
▸▸ Takeaway #4: States that currently restrict reproductive rights but have strong democracies offer the best opportunity for change
A number of states that currently restrict reproductive rights still have strong democratic systems in place. For example, Utah, which is categorized by Guttmacher as restrictive of abortion rights, is above average in our Democracy Tally and has accessible voting policies such as all-mail elections.
The existence of strong democratic systems in states like Utah offer their voters a strong opportunity to fight against further restrictions and seek to overturn existing ones.
Another example is Michigan, where a ballot initiative campaign to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution will go to voters in November after citizens submitted a record number of petition signatures. Michigan has a medium Democracy score and ranks 14th in the nation in our Democracy Tally.
Looking Ahead for Democracy and Reproductive Rights
The U.S. Supreme Court has shown it is entering a new era, with recent decisions impacting all areas of American life, including democracy, the environment, reproductive rights, and more. Ultimately, America’s citizens, not a nine-member court or a few policymakers, should have the final say, which is why it is so critical to protect and defend our democracy.
The details of our democracy are important. Ballot drop boxes, for example, are a secure way to provide voters with additional options for voting. In Kansas, opponents of abortion have been pressuring local counties to remove ballot drop boxes ahead of a constitutional amendment vote.
This analysis shows how restricting democracy allows state governments to pass laws and erode freedoms even in the face of almost no public support. A strong democracy ensures that the people’s voice is heard and allows our freedoms and rights to be protected.
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