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More women are registering to vote. How could that affect midterms?


On May 2, a draft of the Supreme Court's decision to overturn half a century of federal abortion rights was leaked, and public reaction was swift.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Bans off our bodies. Bans off our bodies. Bans off our bodies.

MARTIN: Then on June 24, the court released the final decision in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization case, and there were more protests. In the months that followed, women have been registering to vote in high numbers. So what kind of difference could that make in this year's midterm elections? With us now to discuss is Ronnye Stidvent. She's the director of the Center for Women in Law at the University of Texas, Austin. Thank you so much for being with us this morning.

RONNYE STIDVENT: Thanks, Rachel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Some of the biggest registration increases among women are happening in conservative states - Kansas, Idaho, Louisiana, to name a few. There are also surges in battleground states like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. The list goes on. Are we seeing this happening within the Democratic Party and the Republican Party?

STIDVENT: I think we are. And I think one of the things to kind of put this in context is maybe this is a ripple on the surface of the water, for sure, but I think sometimes we can look at that movement and say, oh, is this a wave or a tsunami? And I don't think we're there yet. So when we look at the numbers, the biggest surge in women voter registrations really happened in Kansas and Pennsylvania, and then there was a pretty steep drop-off in some of the other states you mentioned. And this is not a phenomenon in a lot of other states, including here in Texas. So we want to be careful we're not reading too much into it, but trying to decide if this is something that is perhaps a leading indicator of other things to come.

MARTIN: So let's talk about Pennsylvania and Kansas. I mean, Kansas is notable - right? - because there was a constitutional amendment on the ballot as to whether or not to curtail or dramatically ban abortion rights there. So the issue was front and center.

STIDVENT: It was absolutely in front and center, and it was pretty close in time, I mean, when you think about the Dobbs decision coming down in June and then not very long after in August, when you had the election in Kansas. And so there was a lot of highly motivated people registering to vote, particularly in Kansas. And so I think that temporal element was really important. And the question going forward is, is that enough to sustain the enthusiasm as we head into the midterms? Are we going to continue to see that enthusiasm? Because it wasn't just voter registration that was happening in Kansas; they had a really high voter turnout in that election, especially for a primary election.

MARTIN: And registering to vote isn't the same as casting a ballot, right? So how reliably can the Democratic Party count on this renewed animation over this issue in states where there aren't these very focused amendments or ballot measures?

STIDVENT: I think that's the million-dollar question - is going into the midterms this fall, how much is abortion really enough to rally the base for the Democratic Party? And I think a lot of - there's been a lot of analysis and commentary. I think people are right that this cuts more in favor of Democrats than Republicans. For Republicans, it's a little bit like the dog who finally caught the car. So how do you get people enthusiastic and motivated? Because the changes happen, and the status quo has shifted, and so I think that is really an advantage for Democrats. The question is - the decision came down in June. Elections are in November. Can you continue to motivate people on that issue? Is that enough to overcome some of the other headwinds that Democrats are facing?

MARTIN: Let me ask. Voters have grown more supportive of legalizing abortion since the Dobbs decision. I mean, the majority of Americans already supported some abortion rights before the decision. That sentiment has grown. According to a new survey by The Wall Street Journal, 60% of voters said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, up 55% in March. This comes as conservative candidates have removed anti-abortion statements from their stump speeches. They've seemed to moderate. Are you seeing more of this?

STIDVENT: Yes, and I think we're going to continue to see it because, again, it's really easy to make blanket statements when you don't have to defend it, and you don't have to imagine the consequences of that policy. So, for example, if you look at pro-life candidates, it was really easy to say you wanted a total abortion ban because that wasn't constitutional. It would never pass. Now that that has entered the realm of possibility, I think we're going to see more people be more thoughtful about exactly what kind of policies they're promoting, what kind of exceptions to those bans they would be willing to accept or promote and those types of things that we haven't seen before because it wasn't necessary for those candidates to have to be detailed about exactly what it was they were suggesting and promoting.

MARTIN: What states are you looking at closely, as the midterms approach, on this issue when it comes to, like, women registering?

STIDVENT: I think - you know, I'm here in Texas, right? So we're in Texas, so I look a lot about it here and to see if that changes. So, for example, in 2020, you had a lot more women candidates come in. There were some shifts. And you see that in instances where, for example, women voters, particularly Democratic women voters, might feel like their rights are threatened or might be more motivated to not only come out and vote but to also run for office. So it would be interesting to see how much of that is affected by the Dobbs decision. So looking at states across the board to see if there's a surge in not only women voters but women candidates on both sides of the aisle to see how they come out after this decision. So I think that's really important to look at.

I think the other things that are important to look at are not only this issue but, as you said, how people moderate their tone and how people address the changing ideas about what is acceptable and what is the status quo going forward.

MARTIN: Ronnye Stidvent is the director of the Center for Women in Law at the University of Texas in Austin.

We so appreciate your perspective on this. Thank you very much.

STIDVENT: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.