On August 1 2022, a Twitter account shared a screenshot of a text message urging Kansas residents to “vote YES” on a proposed amendment relating to abortion:
Describing the text as “as dirty as you can get,” the account added that an “anti-abortion coalition” was actively misleading Kansas voters on the nature of the proposed amendment. A text message from the phone number 888-676-3180 was attached, and it read as follows:
Women in [Kansas] are losing their choice on reproductive rights. Voting YES on the Amendment [about abortion] will give women a choice. Vote YES to protect women’s health. Stop2End
In response to the first text, the recipient asked for the identity of the sender. In a reply, the sender provided a cryptic non-response:
Thank you for your response. We are getting a huge volume of messages. Our team will review them al and get back to you as soon as possible.
Based on the screenshot, it appeared that voters in Kansas were targeted by text messages which leaned heavily on the euphemistic use of “choice” — typically employed to soften references to abortion. Civil rights groups and abortion advocacy organizations often discouraged use of the word “choice” as a substitute [PDF], and the phrasing of the text message demonstrated another way that the word “choice” might weaponized to confuse or mislead constituents:
Why? First, they cover up the word ‘abortion’ through euphemism — a function of abortion stigma, which encourages people to believe that “abortion” is a bad word and needs to be concealed. … Non-inclusive language around sexual and reproductive health care, including abortion, creates and maintains obstacles to care.
Many American voters associate the word “choice” in the context of abortion rights to mean “support of abortion access.” Based on the phrasing of the text, Kansas voters were advised to vote “yes” to prevent women in Kansas from “losing their choice on reproductive rights.”
Elsewhere on social media and before the text message in the screenshot was sent, a Reddit account shared an image to r/pics, titled “My wife’s intentionally confusing ballot question, proposed as an amendment, for primaries.” The attached image showed a ballot question in Kansas:
Explanatory statement. The Value Them Both Amendment would affirm there is no Kansas constitutional right to abortion or to require the government funding of abortion, and would reserve to the people of Kansas, through their elected state legislators, the right to pass laws to regulate abortion, including, but not limited to, in circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, or when necessary to save the life of the mother.
A vote for the Value Them Both Amendment would affirm there is no Kansas constitutional right to abortion or to require the government funding of abortion, and would reserve to the people of Kansas, through their elected state legislators, the right to pass laws to regulate abortion.
A vote against the Value Them Both Amendment would make no changes to the constitution of the state of Kansas, and could restrict the people, through their elected state legislators, from regulating abortion by leaving in place the recently recognized right to abortion.”
Shall the following be adopted?
§ 22. Regulation of abortion.
Because Kansans value both women and children, the constitution of the state of Kansas does not require government funding of abortion and does not create or secure a right to abortion. To the extent permitted by the constitution of the United States, the people, through their elected state representatives and state senators, may pass laws regarding abortion, including, but not limited to, laws that account for circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, or circumstances of necessity to save the life of the mother
The Guardian published an interactive, line by line assessment of the Kansas amendment, “Why the language on the Kansas abortion ballot is so confusing.” It reported that the amendment, slated for an August 2 2022 vote, was difficult to decipher, possibly by design:
… this election may not be an accurate picture, because the text on the ballot is so hard to understand clearly. Republicans in the state legislature wrote the language on the ballot last year [in 2021], and ever since experts have argued it is purposefully confusing and misleading.
To be clear:
- Voting “yes” would mean supporting an amendment that would change the Kansas state constitution so it no longer protects abortion, overturning a 2019 state supreme court ruling.
- Voting “no” would mean the state constitution continues to protect abortion rights.
On August 1 2022, the verified account for the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission (@KansasEthics) addressed widespread discourse over the tweet and its intent. In a multi-tweet thread, the commission acknowledged existence of the texts, and stated that ballot initiative-related texts were not subject to “paid for” disclaimers identifying the sender’s affiliation or interest in the measure:
We have received many questions regarding text message advocacy about the constitutional amendment vote. This thread is intended to answer the two questions we have received most commonly today [August 1 2022]. #ksleg
First, under current law, text message advocacy about constitutional ballot initiatives does not require paid-for disclaimers.
The constitutional amendment attribution statute only addresses paid communication through newspapers, radio, and TV, or any (paid or unpaid) communication through fliers, brochures, and political fact sheets.
Paid text messages that advocate for candidates do require attribution, but constitutional ballot initiatives do not. Constitutional ballot initiative advocacy falls under a different statute that includes nothing about text messaging or anything similar.
For candidates, the Ethics Commission issued an advisory opinion in 2020 that held that paid text message communication for candidates requires a paid-for attribution at the beginning of the message, similar to robocalls advocating for candidates.
The statute requiring attribution for constitutional ballot initiative advocacy (K.S.A. 25-2407) was originally passed in 1973 and was amended once in 2007.
Therefore, text message advocacy about a constitutional amendment does not require a paid for disclaimer.
Near the end of the thread, @KansasEthics acknowledged that the Kansas abortion amendment-related text could be construed as misleading:
The second question we have received is whether any law under our jurisdiction requires accuracy of communications. In 2004, the Commission specifically addressed this question and noted that “nothing in the [Campaign Finance] Act addresses the use of misleading advertising.”
On August 2 2022, the Washington Post reported that the numbers were linked to a firm associated with Republican messaging, adding that they had since been disabled:
The unsigned messages were described as deceptive by numerous recipients, including former Democratic governor Kathleen Sebelius, who also served as health and human services secretary in the Obama administration. She told The Washington Post that she was “stunned to receive the message, which made clear there was a very specific effort to use carefully crafted language to confuse folks before they would go vote.”
The gambit was all the more alarming to abortion rights advocates and watchdogs because its source was unknown. But the messages were enabled by a fast-growing, Republican-aligned technology firm, whose role in the episode has not been previously reported.
The messages were sent from phone numbers that had been leased by Alliance Forge, based in Sparks, Nev., according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue. Alliance Forge, which was founded in 2021, describes itself as the “nation’s fastest growing political technology company, proudly serving federal, state, and local campaigns throughout the nation.”
The numbers were leased by Alliance Forge from Twilio, a San Francisco-based communications company. The numbers were disabled Monday evening [August 1 2022], according to a Twilio spokesman, Cris Paden, who said the account that had leased them was in violation of the company’s policies prohibiting the “spread of disinformation.”
On August 1 2022, a number of Twitter accounts shared screenshots of a text message they received from a veiled sender regarding an August 2 2022 proposed amendment in Kansas pertaining to abortion. The text message declared that women in Kansas were at risk of “losing their choice on reproductive rights,” and that “Voting YES on the Amendment … will give women a choice.”
In actuality, voting “yes” on the amendment put access to abortion in Kansas at risk.