West Virginia 2022 election: Abortion ban fallout fails to materialize for Democrats

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By Ellie Heffernan, Mountain State Spotlight

When West Virginia lawmakers passed a near-total abortion ban in September, a small but vocal group of protesters at the state Capitol vowed retribution. They predicted the ban, which followed the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, would motivate voters to kick out Republican lawmakers.

In some places, that may have been the case. Voters in California, Michigan and Vermont added abortion protection to their state constitutions. In Kentucky and Montana, voters rejected anti-abortion amendments. 

But in West Virginia, many lawmakers that supported abortion rights lost big. In state Senate races, the only Democratic win was for Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, the sole Democrat in that chamber to support the ban. Democratic Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, a longtime vocal supporter of abortion rights, lost her bid for a Senate seat to Republican Mike Oliverio, who is anti-abortion. 

Across the country, high youth turnout tipped some races to Democrats. But not in West Virginia.

There were 49% fewer young West Virginians voting early and absentee during this year’s election, compared with the 2018 midterms. For voters of all other ages, that decline was just 22%, according to data from the West Virginia Secretary of State. And a typical young West Virginian was five times less likely to vote early or absentee than folks from other age groups. 

Detailed election day turnout data isn’t available yet. But there’s no evidence to suggest young West Virginians vote in disproportionately high numbers on Election Day, compared to early voting.

Matt Jacobsmeier, a political science professor at West Virginia University who specializes in political behavior, said he’s pretty confident that a lack of competitive races contributed to voter apathy. 

“People might be more likely to vote if they think there’s a decent chance that their vote is actually going to make a difference in the outcome of the election,” Jacobsmeier said. “And when one party is so dominant in the state, a lot of people unfortunately might be thinking, well, you know, my vote is not going to do much, and they stay home for that reason.”

Even if folks were motivated to vote for pro-abortion rights candidates, many of the statehouse races between Democrats and Republicans weren’t considered competitive, Jacobsmeier said. And in over a fifth of last Tuesday’s statehouse races, no Democrat ran.

Chairman of the state Democratic Party Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, said Republican redistricting also helped make races less competitive. He said that’s part of the reason the party struggled to find candidates to run in certain races.

“The places where we felt were even less competitive, it’s a lot to ask somebody out there and run when the cards are stacked against them,” he said. 

But just making sure that a Democrat runs in each race likely won’t be enough to motivate more young people — and West Virginians of all ages to turn out. Platforms matter too. 

Hayley Boso, a Democratic voter and graphic designer from Morgantown, said she believes the party didn’t focus enough on progressive issues that could unify working-class West Virginians. 

“It’s become a party of catering to the wealthy people, and not focusing on the workers,” Boso said. “I feel like ever since the 90s, whenever Bill Clinton won, they’ve tried to pivot to be just like Republicans, but with abortions and no guns. And that’s clearly not working. But they won’t give that up.”

Jacobsmeier said survey research from the Pew Research Center shows abortion wasn’t always the most important issue on registered voters’ minds, even among Democrats. Overall, those surveyed cared more about the economy, gun policy, education and health care. Abortion was more of a priority among Democrats, but it still wasn’t right at the top of their list. 

While statehouse Republicans were able to overcome most Democratic opposition to pass this year’s abortion ban, adding any additional restrictions will be easier next time around, now that the party controls 118 of the 134 seats in the House and Senate.

Reach reporter Ellie Heffernan at ellieheffernan@mountainstatespotlight.org

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