Abortion question leaves many puzzled Number of undecided voters remains unusually high

November 01, 1992|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Staff writer

The long and bitter campaign over Maryland's new abortion law is dragging toward Tuesday's finale with many voters still undecided on how to vote and confused about what the measure would do.

Last week, a Channel 2 poll, taken by Mason-Dixon Opinion Research, showed 51 percent favoring the new law, with 37 percent intending to vote against and 12 percent still undecided.

Sources in each campaign said that internal polls, which campaign groups decline to release, show parallel results.

"That's a high number of undecideds," says Maura Keefe,

spokeswoman for Maryland for Choice. "It means they are absolutely confused."

"It goes back to what we've said from the beginning: It's a confusing law," says Frederica Mathewes-Green, spokeswoman for the Vote kNOw Coalition, which is leading the fight against the measure.

And over the last days before the vote, the battle for the voters' support will continue.

Many congregations, including most Roman Catholic parishes, will hear the Vote kNOw message from the pulpit. At the same time, clergymen who are members of the Baltimore Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance will be urging a vote for the law.

Campaign volunteers are going door to door and working the phones to try to get the vote out. In a blitz of television commercials, Maryland for Choice is trying to sharpen its message, clarifying that a vote for Question 6 on Tuesday's ballot is "the pro-choice position." Backers of the bill are also using an ad that quotes the attorney general and various newspaper editorials.

Vote kNOw is airing ads that include one showing a wheelchair-bound woman who was paralyzed after an abortion in a Prince George's County clinic.

Another new commercial features women who describe themselves as "pro-choice" but say they intend to vote against Question 6 because "it's a bad law."

Each side in the abortion campaign accuses the other of trying to confuse and scare voters. Each side says the other's commercials misinform.

Even the lawn signs around the state aren't much help to a Marylander trying to figure out which way to vote: All signs are blue-and-white, and neither side uses the word "abortion." Except for the word "choice" on the signs of the law's supporters, it's hard for a voter who comes late to the debate to tell which camp put up the signs.

So the issue that had seemed simple when the law was moving through the legislature in 1991 -- whether to keep abortion widely available in Maryland -- now apparently seems much more complicated to many voters.

Political wisdom says the confusion will help opponents of the law. Someone confused about what's on the ballot generally votes against it.

Ms. Mathewes-Green says Vote kNOw's polls show that "trends are hopeful. We do see that we are picking up more all the time."

Ms. Keefe, of Maryland for Choice, says that the majority favoring the law "seems solid." Over the last month, erosion from the abortion-rights side has stopped, she says.

The law up for referendum Tuesday -- the only abortion-rights law on the ballot anywhere in the country this year -- would allow abortion without government interference until the time in pregnancy when the fetus might be able to survive outside the womb. Later in pregnancy, abortion would be allowed if the woman's life or health is at risk or if the fetus is deformed.

The law, approved in 1991, was blocked and petitioned to referendum by abortion opponents, who delivered a record LTC 144,000 signatures to the secretary of state.

If the law is rejected, Maryland will have no enforceable law regulating abortion.

The only law on the books is a 1968 statute that has been held unconstitutional since 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court, in Roe vs. Wade, found a constitutional right to abortion.

Polling firms say that it's often harder to sample opinion on referendum questions than on candidates. The questions are often long and complicated and harder for the voter to understand.

And the Maryland abortion question "is about as complicated as it gets," says Joe Denneny, of KPC Research in Charlotte, N.C.

A hundred words long, the question is a series of complex clauses that even supporters of the law say they have trouble understanding. That, poll-takers say, means the voter must be educated before going into the voting booth; the language on the ballot will be of little help.

"A lot of people are going to depend on someone to interpret it for them, be it a woman's group or a church group or a candidate they like," Mr. Denneny says.

"People walk in and say, 'Man, I'm not going to read all this,' " says Mason-Dixon Vice President Del Ali. That makes television advertising crucial. "Generally, the more confusing, the longer something is, if there's not a good media campaign on the issue, that side loses."

Vote kNOw, organized by abortion opponents last year, has spent the summer telling voters the new law must be defeated because it doesn't protect women's health.

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