Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Arts & Life

Considering Roe v. Wade and a possible statewide vote on abortion

Screenshot 2022-04-28 172614.jpg

The interview with Kevin Woster, posted above, is from SDPB's daily public-affairs show, In the Moment, hosted by Lori Walsh.

I’m m trying to figure out who are we as a state on the abortion issue.

Today, I mean.

I remember who we were in 2006 and 2008, years when state voters rejected proposed abortion bans by nearly identical margins of about 10 percentage points.

We said “no” to the proposed ban in 2006 that would have outlawed abortions except for those needed to save the life of the pregnant woman. And we said “no” again in 2008 to a proposal that would have banned abortion except in cases of rape or incest or to preserve the pregnant woman’s life and health.

The 2006 proposal went down with 44 percent of voters in favor and 56 percent opposed. The 2008 proposal failed with 45 percent in favor and 55 percent opposed.

It was a brutal campaign, with intense emotions on both sides.

“It was real hard — hard work and organizing, with a lot of door-to-door stuff,” says Kristin Hayward of Sioux Falls, manager of advocacy and development for Planned Parenthood in South Dakota. “I think part of the reason the votes turned out like they did was that people just got sick of hearing about it.”

Back then we had established ourselves as a state that was willing to put pretty strict limitations on abortion but not ban it entirely.

Are we still that state 14 years after the last vote? I’m honestly not sure.

It’s a different Supreme Court these days

What if the U.S. Supreme Court, which has a lopsided lean to the right that it didn’t have 14 years ago, were to overturn Roe v. Wade or profoundly diminish it? South Dakota has a “trigger” law that automatically bans abortion if the Supreme Court overturns Roe.

That ban would almost certainly be challenge by abortion-rights supporters through a petition drive to put the issue up for yet another statewide vote. So, are we still the state that rejected bans in 2006 and 2008?

That year, I would have predicted that we’d be even more likely to reject a ban in 2022. I also would have predicted that we would be at least slightly more moderate as a state than we were in 2008.

I thought the explosion of growth in Sioux Falls, which has been a community of political balance for years, would lead to an increase in Democrats and have an overall moderating effect on the state.

Instead, the number of registered Democrats in the state has plummeted since 2008, while Republican registration has gone up and up to give the GOP an edge of 130,000 registered voters. And whatever the effect of progressives moving in might have been, it seems to have been countered by young conservatives who find South Dakota’s economy and its politics much to their liking.

In addition, older, often-retired conservatives have been moving here for lower taxes and right-wing politics in the Black Hills and other areas.

The Democratic Party has continued a decline that began after its heyday period of the 1970s. Republicans have held the governor’s chair since then and dominated the state Legislature.

But even in 2008, Democrats still held one of the state’s two U.S. Senate seats and its lone U.S. House seat. With the retirement of former Sen. Tim Johnson in 2014 and the defeat by Kristi Noem of former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin in 2010, Democrats have been wiped out of statewide seats and struggle to maintain a tiny minority in the state Legislature.

Without Democratic presence, moderation lost

“When we had a couple of national Democrats still in office, it kind of put some guard rails up,” says Jon Schaff, a political science professor at Northern State University in Aberdeen. “Once that was gone, it sort of gave the state permission to be as conservative as you want. There was nobody prominent on the other side making the counter argument, the case for moderation.”

As national politics became even more polarized, South Dakota was “free to drift farther right,” Schaff says. “My sense is the state has drifted more conservative than it was 14 or 16 years ago.”

That’s my sense, too.

Then there’s Noem, who served four terms in the U.S. House before running successfully for governor in 2018. She is a conservative like the Republican governors before her in some ways, but very much unlike most of them in others.

That’s particularly true of her two predecessors, Mike Rounds and Dennis Daugaard.

“Kristi Noem is a different kind of governor,” Schaff says. “She’s more polarizing. She doesn’t have that sort of consensus-building interest that Rounds and (former Gov. Dennis) Daugaard had.”

Both Rounds and Daugaard were predictably pro-life in their positions on abortion and abortion bans. But they didn’t lead with it or make it a priority, as Noem already has done. She would likely be a prominent proponent of an abortion ban if the issue were again put to a statewide vote.

“We knew when she came into office that this was going to be really tough,” Kristin Hayward says. “And that’s exactly where we’re at now.”

A culture warrior in the governor’s office

Noem seems driven by her biblically based views on social issues, her desire to push them into the public policy and her inclinations to latch onto hot-button national issues and swing them like political clubs. She seems to relish the culture wars that play out nationally between the two major parties and relishes the chance to brings the battle home to South Dakota.

“She likes the culture wars better than they (Rounds and Daugaard) did,” Schaff says.

Noem has also sought and found the spotlight of national conservative media outlets and clearly likes that stage, where abortion ranks is one of the big issues. She is considered a possible candidate in what could a crowded Republican field for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024, if Donald Trump doesn’t seek it.

If Trump does run, most Republicans, including Noem, will fall in line behind their leader. That comes easily for Noem, who has been an unwavering and enthusiastic Trump supporter. She actively recruits people with similar philosophies to move to South Dakota, which might have some effect on the overall political climate in the state as well.

Then there’s the state Legislature of today. it is not only more conservative but a lot more extreme on the issues it focuses on and the rhetoric it uses. After the abortion bans were defeated in 2006 and 2008, a few legislators tried to revive them. But there was little interest in pushing for complete bans by most lawmakers or by Rounds or Daugaard.

This Legislatures and this governor have sought to reverse or modify the outcomes of key public votes in statewide elections. And it seems likely they might do the same on abortion, if they didn’t like the outcome of a public vote.

There’s no guarantee that the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade, of course. But if it does, the fight will come back to South Dakota.

Getting ready for another campaign

Hayward said abortion-rights supporters are organizing and preparing for that possibility now. The Campaign for Healthy Families, which fought against the previous bans, is coming back together as South Dakotans for Healthy Families, she said.

“They’re preparing for the possibility of having to deal with that ballot issue again,” Hayward says. “We won’t know what that means yet.”

Would the vote on an abortion ban be different than it was in 2006 and 2008?

“My guess is it probably would, depending on how it’s worded,” Schaff says.

Almost certainly, he says, “it would be closer than 10 points.”

Hayward says she asks herself “almost every day” what South Dakota voters today would do if faced with another abortion ban on the ballot. And while she won’t predict, she fears it will be a tougher campaign than the previous two for abortion-rights supporters.

“I’m not saying it (a ban) would be approved,” she said. “If I were, why would I work for the organization?”

But with a governor likely to be a leader on the other side and a barrage of social media information and misinformation to be expected, odds could be tougher this time around.

I do think we’re a more conservative state than we were 14 years ago. But we were pretty conservative then, too. And for the second time in two years, we said “no” to an abortion ban.

Would we say “no” again? At this point, I’m inclined to think we wouldn’t.

But I’ve been surprised by South Dakota voters before, and could be again.