We don’t have to tell you that there’s a lot at stake in the 2020 election. The potential for a transition in leadership across the country and across state legislatures promises opportunities to expand and codify abortion access as law. On the other hand, there are several politicians fighting to remain in power who have been key players in the dismantling of reproductive rights over the last several years.
Here are a few elections we’re watching in 2020 that may determine how our work to protect access to the sexual and reproductive health care our communities need and deserve proceeds.
The Presidential Election
The candidates in the 2020 presidential election, Joe Biden and Donald Trump, could not stand further apart on policies regarding abortion access. Biden says he would codify abortion as a federal law, while Trump has vowed to appoint justices to the Supreme Court that would overturn Roe v. Wade if given the chance. As the leader of the executive branch, the person who holds the office of President does have a substantial amount of power when it comes to reproductive rights across the country.
There are a few main ways that a president can use their place in office to broaden or restrict access to abortion care, but only one of those is in the form of direct legislation. In the U.S., the president has the power to propose restrictions on Medicaid funding, as well as funding through other federal programs like Title X.
While limiting federal funding for abortion providers does not directly restrict the legality of abortion, it does restrict access by making it difficult for health centers to remain open due to budget shortfalls. A restriction on Medicaid funding can also make it difficult for patients who are insured through Medicaid to receive care, because their Medicaid plan cannot cover the procedure.
The president also nominates federal judges and justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, where restrictions on abortions passed in state legislatures may be upheld or struck down. During Trump’s term in office, for example, three Supreme Court justices have been nominated and more than 200 of the 792 active federal judges were appointed.
Though it is less common, presidents can also pass federal regulations restricting or expanding abortion access. Most laws regarding abortion are passed at the state level, and then might make their way through the courts to reach the Supreme Court and be decided as law of the land. Joe Biden has noted that if he is elected president, he will codify the right to abortion as federal law, minimizing the impact of Roe v. Wade was to be overturned under a conservative-majority Supreme Court.
The Senate & Senate Majority Leader
The Senate has a much more direct role in enacting legislation. Along with the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate is responsible for writing, proposing, debating, and voting on federal laws. Unlike the U.S. House of Representatives, however, senators serve significantly longer terms and are not directly representative of the U.S. population. Since each state has two senators, no matter how dense that state’s population is, there may be uneven or unequal representation of partisan ideas in the Senate, based on how popular they are in specific states.
The Senate Majority Leader holds a position of leadership and is chosen by the members of the political party that hold the most representation in the Senate. Whoever holds that position is likely to steer many of the discussions on the floor, can force votes on legislation based on the party’s policy goals, and has a hand in appointing federal judges. Though this position is not powerful by design, in practice the person in this position can leverage a significant amount of power if they choose, especially as a leader of their party.
The current Senate Majority leader is Mitch McConnell, who is firmly anti-abortion and has held this position in the Senate since 2015. There are two ways that Mitch McConnell might be removed from this position in the 2020 election: if the Senate is flipped to Democratic control, or if he loses his bid for reelection to Decomcratic opponent Amy McGrath.
A state prosecutor, also known as an assistant district attorney, represents the state government on behalf of the district attorney in cases where an individual may be prosecuted for committing a crime. In most states, state prosecutors are elected to their position. This position isn’t necessarily meant to be political, but candidates tend to represent a political party.
When it comes to abortion access, politics can certainly come into play in the role of a state prosecutor. Whether or not abortion should be legal is an inherently political stance. Several states have trigger bans in place, or laws that immediately make abortion care illegal if Roe is overturned.
In response to Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court, more than 60 state prosecutors and attorneys general have pledged not to prosecute or criminalize abortion if Roe falls. Coney Barrett, Trump’s third nominee after promising to only appoint judges who would overturn Roe, would push the Supreme Court to a 6-3 conservative and anti-abortion majority.
Attorneys General, like state prosecutors, are legal professionals who are elected to represent the state or federal government. In their role, they also act as the representative of the public interest. They are often endorsed or represented by a political party, though the role itself is not innately political. State attorneys general are typically down ballot and less publicized elections, but they can be play a major role in whether or not abortion restrictions are implemented.
Several state attorneys general signed on with state prosecutors in a joint statement suggesting they will not criminalize or prosecute individuals who seek abortion care, even if Roe is overturned and states pass legislation that would make seeking care illegal.