Will Denisonians Vote with Their Feet on Abortion Rights Post-Grad?

By Madeleine Murphy

I am a 21-year-old college senior living in a state that just swung far in favor of a party that has made it clear that the fetus is a life that is protected over my healthcare choices. I am on the precipice of the “real world” and have a chance to choose where I want to end up with the privilege of having a home base in a state where my healthcare decisions about reproduction are not limited by political acts. While I see this as a privilege I wonder if other college students in my position feel the same. Will Denison students prioritize their access to reproductive rights upon graduation?

In any Political Science 101 class, students will learn about “voting with your feet.” This theory argues that people will voluntarily leave a place or organization in reaction to adversity. In simpler terms: If you don’t like it leave. This topic has taken on a new meaning after the Dobbs decision this past summer overturning federal protection on abortion provided by Roe v Wade. With abortion protections now determined state by state and states becoming increasingly polarized, the vote with your feet phenomenon is especially important.

Substantial arguments have been made against this theory by stating that there is more than just political dislike that would affect people’s decision to move and only the resource-rich would be able to actually be able to move. Family ties, jobs, schools, and many more factors affect whether people can realistically vote with their feet. As college students, our options are not wide open. But most of us are not yet tied to a job in a geographic place or worrying about moving kids into a different school system meaning that we might be able to more easily go through the thought experiment of dreaming where we end up after graduation. This is why college students are an increasingly important group to focus on if we want to know the validity of the vote with your feet argument when it comes to state-by-state abortion protections. If the theory is true then that would mean that people who are most affected (people with uteruses) and those who politically disagree (Democrats) would want to move or stay away from states with restrictive abortion laws.

In the fall of 2022 Denison University students were asked “assuming you have a good post-graduation job/grad school offer, would you move to a state that has banned abortion services?” Both gender and political ideology have a strong impact on students’ responses to this question. About 75% of Strong and lean Republicans said “absolutely yes” while about 40-50% of Democrats and Strong Democrats said probably or absolutely no. Interestingly the conviction on this decision seems lopsided in favor of the conservatives with only 8% of Democrats or Strong Democrats saying Absolutely No. For many college democrats, the political cost of living in a state that banned abortion services does not completely outweigh the benefit of a good job or grad school offer.

Gender was a strong factor when making this decision even among those who politically agree. No female-identifying strong Democrats would absolutely move to a state that restricted abortion access whereas 20% of males identifying as strong Democrats would. This correlation is not surprising as abortion policy directly impacts women’s lives in a much different way than it impacts men. That being said, the wide disparity is surprising with the rise of organizations like men4choice and others trying to bring men into the pro-choice movement and change the narrative that it is only a women’s issue.

Class year does not have a significant impact on people’s perception of this question. I might have assumed that seniors were more likely to have strong opinions on this issue as they are the most likely to actually be making the choice asked in the question. Even after taking into account the partisan differences within the class years, there is essentially no difference in how the different grades respond.

Seniors are actually ever so slightly (but not significantly) more likely to move to a state that banned abortion services if they have a good postgrad offer. This might indicate that when push comes to shove and you have to make the tough choices economic stability wins out over political dislike of a location.

Students are willing to admit that they would take abortion into account when directly asked. But what about if they are not? In another set of questions, we asked what criteria they would consider when choosing where to move. Despite what seems like the inescapable political dialogue about abortion access, it is actually the second lowest priority for Denison students as they think about where they want to move after graduation. The top three are cost of living, that someone will hire them, and that the city is livable. I interpret this in the political sphere as people being concerned about safety, jobs/job security, and the economy or inflation. These three points were the core of the Republican Party’s talking points across the country in the 2022 midterms with rhetoric that focused on rising inflation and crime while there were democrats in leadership. The leading issue Democrats were hoping would get people to the polls was abortion, which ranks very low on this list.

But people did get to the polls. In every state where abortion was on the ballot, abortion rights were protected. Montana voters struck down a “born-alive” measure, and voters created or protected a constitutional right to abortion in California, Vermont, Michigan, and Kentucky. These 5 states are wildly different political landscapes and one would assume wildly different results. The unilateral result of these ballot measures shows that people might not be voting with their feet but they are voting to change the environment their feet are in.

Madeleine Murphy is a senior PPE major originally from the DC area. When not crunching survey numbers for 127 or dreaming of local campaign politics she is serving the student government as policy chair, cracking cheezy jokes on campus tours, or playing flute for the wind ensemble and orchestra.

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