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Mike Jacobs: Kansas abortion vote mirrors past N.D. election

Something somewhat similar happened in North Dakota in 2014.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs
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Voters in Kansas surprised the country last week, by voting to keep abortion rights in the state constitution. The New York Times called it a “Huge and surprising victory.”

More from Mike Jacobs
The first reference I found to house finches in the Herald’s online archive was in 1989, when Milt Sather called about a house finch he’d seen in Greenbush, Minn. The column about the sighting was printed Nov. 2 that year.

Perhaps the Times, and other observers, shouldn’t have been so surprised.

Something somewhat similar happened in North Dakota in 2014.

To be sure, the situation is not exactly the same, but the states share similar demographics, economics and political leanings. Both are deep red. Both gave Donald Trump large margins in 2016 and 2020, although not quite so large in Kansas as in North Dakota. Agriculture is a huge part of each state’s economy. In each state there is a big divide between emerging cities, though right now North Dakota’s are growing faster, but Bismarck and Fargo and Grand Forks have some growing to do to catch up with Wichita and Kansas City. Overall, the population in Kansas is about four times greater than in North Dakota.

The issues differed slightly, too. Kansans voted to keep abortion rights in their state constitution. North Dakotans voted to keep a “personhood amendment” out of the constitution. The amendment came out of the 2013 legislative session. It had 19 words: “The inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected.”

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The campaign was heated. The vote was lopsided: 64% to 36%. Nearly a two-thirds majority voted to keep the amendment out of the state constitution. In Kansas, the vote to keep abortion rights in the state constitution was 59% to 41%, not quite so robust a margin as in North Dakota.

The North Dakota outcome was remarkably uniform across the state. "Yes" votes prevailed in only four counties, and topped 60% in only one, Golden Valley, where Interstate 94 passes into Montana. The other "yes” counties were Emmons at 58%, Grant at 56%, Logan at 55% and Stark at 52%, all of them rural counties except for Stark, where the county seat is Dickinson.

The largest “no” percentage was in Divide County, the state’s northwesternmost county, where 78% of the voters were against the amendment. The second-ranking county was Ransom County in the southeastern corner of the state, where the “no” vote reached 75%. In Steele County, at the western edge of the Red River Valley, the “no” vote was 74%. In Cass County, including Fargo, the state’s largest city, it was 71%, and in Grand Forks County it was 68%.

The point here is that rural and urban voters were against the amendment. The same thing happened in Kansas.

The results reflect the ethnic and religious makeup of the state. Counties with predominantly Scandinavian populations – Lutheran counties by extension – opposed the amendment. Voters in counties supporting the amendment were more likely of German heritage, descendants of German speakers who came to the United States from Russia and Ukraine. Many of them are Catholic.

This divide has been important in the state’s political history.

The “personhood amendment” had other ramifications. Its legislative sponsors, Rep. Bette Grand of Fargo and Sen. Margaret Sitte of Bismarck, lost their re-election campaigns, the only Republicans defeated for re-election in 2014.

In both Kansas and North Dakota, the elections, eight years apart, showed that legislators and voters think differently about these issues. Legislators in both states are more eager to limit choice than voters have been.

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The personhood campaign had a another consequence in North Dakota. It brought Janne Myrdal to prominence in the state. She was a key figure in the personhood campaign. In 2016, she was elected to the state Senate – although all three counties in her district, the northeasternmost in the state, voted against the amendment, 52% in Walsh, 58% in Pembina and 58% in Cavalier. In her legislative career, Myrdal has sponsored high-profile bills regarding abortion rights and gender issues.

Noted

Harvey Tallackson died last week at age 97. A Democrat, he served 36 years in the state Senate, representing a district that included Walsh County, north of Grand Forks.

In many ways, Tallackson was the embodiment of the rural Democrats who once governed the state – holding the governorship for all but four years between 1961 and 1991 and majorities in each house of the Legislature for portions of that time. Tallackson himself served as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

He was a farmer whose political skills were honed in Farmers Union meetings and on the boards of rural electric cooperatives. He was no radical, but he stood solidly behind the notion that people working together could get things done, and that commitment led him to government service.

Besides his legislative work, he did a pretty good impression of Abraham Lincoln. He and his wife, Glenna, were married for more than 73 years.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.

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Opinion by Mike Jacobs
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