State Election Results: Church Won on Abortion, but Lost on Other Issues

Assisted suicide, pro-death penalty and legalized marijuana ballot measures were approved, but pro-life candidates performed well overall.

(photo: Unsplash)

WASHINGTON — While the drama of the presidential race took center stage, a number of state-level votes in the election delivered key victories on abortion, but also dealt blows to the Church on other issues, such as drug use, the death penalty and assisted suicide.

Across the country, from the bottom to the top of the ticket, Americans sent more pro-life executives and lawmakers into office. But the outcome of several state ballot measures went against Church teaching.

Colorado voters endorsed physician-assisted suicide. California, Nebraska and Oklahoma voted in favor of the death penalty. And four states approved the use of recreational marijuana: California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada.

Despite local state setbacks, the overall election was good news for the pro-life cause, according to Paul Kengor, a political scientist and Catholic commentator at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. “Many of the states, if not a solid majority of them, saw senators and governors that are solidly pro-life,” Kengor said.

In Pennsylvania, the pro-life Republican Pat Toomey won over Katie McGinty, whom Kengor described as “a Planned Parenthood Democrat.” There were notable victories in two other states: In Wisconsin, Ron Johnson defeated Russ Feingold, and, in Indiana, Todd Young prevailed over Evan Bayh, in what Kengor describes as one of the biggest upsets of the night.

The same went for state legislative elections, according to Carol Tobias, the president of the National Right to Life Committee. “A lot of states were able to increase their pro-life majorities,” Tobias said.

Overall, Republicans had a net gain of 30 state legislative seats across the country, according to Steven Rogers, a political scientist at St. Louis University.

It was a modest fraction of the total 5,000 seats available, but it was enough to turn some states more pro-life. In Kentucky, for example, a majority of the state House and Senate are pro-life for the first time, according to Tobias. Pro-lifers now also hold veto-proof super majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature in North Carolina.



However, the pro-life cause suffered an enormous setback in Colorado, where physician-assisted suicide became law.

Colorado is the sixth state to legalize assisted suicide. The others are Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Montana and California. The leader of the Colorado Catholic Conference — which represents the Church on political and legislative matters — called the outcome of the vote a “grave travesty of compassion and choice.”

“The only effect Proposition 106 will have on our state will be to deepen the divides along lines of race, ethnicity and income in our society and entrench us deeper into a culture that offers a false compassion by marginalizing the most vulnerable.

As Pope Francis has noted, it only furthers a ‘throwaway’ culture,” Jenny Kraska, the executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, said in a statement.

Kraska told the Register that the Church had done everything it could to fight the measure. It had chipped in $2.5 million to an opposition campaign. Bishops asked parish priests to spend the preceding three Sundays preaching against assisted suicide. And bulletin inserts reinforced the message. But Catholics comprise just 20% of the population of a state that is becoming increasingly secularized. “Unfortunately, the wider public didn’t seem to think this was a bad idea and passed it,” Kraska said.

“Now, I think we need to let people know that they will be supported in choosing the right choice, which is life,” she added.

Several states also backed the death penalty.

Nebraska voters reinstated it just one year after its elimination. Oklahoma voters chose to strengthen their state’s existing death-penalty law. California had two death-penalty-related measures on the ballot. One asked voters if they wanted to repeal the death penalty.

They didn’t. Instead, they decided to shorten the time between convictions and executions.   

“The California Catholic Conference of Bishops is extremely disappointed that Proposition 62, which would have ended the use of the death penalty in the state, was not successful. In this Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, it would have been the fitting culmination of a yearlong call to live out the works of mercy,” Edward Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, said in a statement.

Steve Pehanich, an official at the California Catholic Conference, said the shorter time frame would increase the chance that an innocent person could be executed. However, the change in the appeals process will not take effect immediately because the state’s current method of execution was ruled by a federal court judge in 2006 to be cruel and unusual punishment. State corrections officials have since been attempting to devise a more “humane” way of execution, according to Pehanich.

There was one upside in the California election results, however. Voters approved a proposition that makes three critical reforms to the criminal-justice system that state bishops had backed.

Now judges, not prosecutors, will decide whether juvenile offenders should be tried as adults.

Prison sentences will be limited to the time for the primary crime that was committed, not an additional time resulting from lesser offenses.

In addition, the proposition also strengthened state rehabilitation programs, according to a fact sheet from the California Catholic Conference.


Going to Pot

The Church also saw a defeat on the issue of drug legalization. California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada all voted in favor of recreational marijuana. (Previous to the election, just over half of the states had loosened criminal laws on marijuana. Its recreational use was legal in seven of those states.

In this election, Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota approved the use of medical marijuana. In only one state, Arizona, did a vote to legalize marijuana fail.)

In Massachusetts, the Church campaigned heavily against the marijuana legalization measure. The Archdiocese of Boston alone reportedly spent $850,000 to defeat it.

“We are very disappointed that Question Four was approved, allowing for the commercialization of marijuana in Massachusetts.

It was and continues to be encouraging that our parishes and many of our colleagues in the ecumenical and interfaith community gave significant time and support for the effort to defeat this harmful legislation,” the archdiocese said in a statement provided by spokesman Terrence Donilon.

In California, individual bishops also spoke out on the issue, but the California Catholic Conference chose to focus its efforts on the death penalty and criminal-justice reform, according to Pehanich.


Overall Perspective

Despite local setbacks, Kengor said the election overall was good for Catholics.

Now that Republicans have held onto their majority in the U.S. Senate, he expects President-elect Donald Trump to make good on his promise to nominate pro-life justices. And, although he does not consider Trump a true conservative, Kengor said Catholics can also be relieved that he is unlikely to be a champion of progressive causes — such as transgender rights — in the way that Obama was: “I think the Church has to be happy about that.”

Stephen Beale writes from

Providence, Rhode Island.