Backers of a constitutional amendment that would give state lawmakers more power over abortions have some selling to do.
The same appears to be true of those who support a proposal that would lock in the governor's power to appoint judges.
Tennesseans said in a recent poll that their first instinct is to reject proposals that would give lawmakers "more power to regulate abortions" and the governor the ability to "choose judges" — the main implications of two proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot this November.
Backers of both amendments are optimistic, but they admit they will have to convince many voters to set aside their knee-jerk reactions to win this fall.
"Without question, Tennessee is an independent state in many ways," said Brian Harris, president of Tennessee Right to Life. "What we have to do on Yes on 1 is put into context what the court ruled in 2000."
Tennesseans will vote on four constitutional amendments this fall, dealing with abortion, judicial selection, a state income tax and gambling run by charitable operations.
An extensive campaign is planned for and against proposed Amendment 1, which would overturn a 2000 decision by the state Supreme Court ruling that the Tennessee Constitution preserves access to abortion services. Amendment 2 would write Tennessee's system for choosing judges into the constitution.
Those campaigns will involve some of the state's biggest political figures. Gov. Bill Haslam and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey support both amendments. Former Gov. Phil Bredesen and former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson back Amendment 2.
But a survey of 1,245 registered voters taken recently for Vanderbilt University suggests many Tennesseans are not yet on board. Seventy-one percent of registered voters said they would oppose giving lawmakers the constitutional authority to regulate abortions, compared to 23 percent who said they favor such a measure. Meanwhile, 53 percent of voters said judges should be elected, compared to 22 percent who said they should be chosen by the governor.
"I think there will be a real need to explain exactly what the amendment does," Haslam said of the abortion amendment, though he added that the same was true on electing judges.
Researchers did not ask directly how respondents plan to vote on the amendments, and John Geer, a Vanderbilt professor of political science who oversaw the poll, said neither result should be used to predict the outcome of the votes on those questions more than five months from now. But he said they do reflect an anti-government, pro-individual streak in Tennessee politics that both amendments may have to overcome.
"Trying to poll on these particular questions is just difficult, because they are worded in a complicated fashion," he said. "No one should interpret these results as a sign the state is suddenly pro-choice."
Harris noted that the same Vanderbilt poll found that 70 percent of voters believe abortion should be illegal or legal only in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is in jeopardy.
Members of the Yes on 2 campaign also believe voters can be brought around to the judicial selection proposal.
They said Vanderbilt pollsters left out important points in favor of Amendment 2. These include the fact that voters would continue to have the option of throwing out judges through retention elections and the expectation that spending on judicial races is likely to skyrocket if the current system were struck down.
"It's going to look like justice is for sale, and that is terrible," said Lee Barfield, a Nashville attorney who has been among Yes on 2's most prominent backers. "That (message) is what Yes on 2 is all about. The challenge for us is to explain to people why Amendment 2 is the best long-term policy for the people of this state."
Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion. The people retain the right through their elected state representatives and state senators to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion, including, but not limited to, circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or when necessary to save the life of the mother.
Judges of the Supreme Court or any intermediate appellate court shall be appointed for a full term or to fill a vacancy by and at the discretion of the governor; shall be confirmed by the legislature; and thereafter, shall be elected in a retention election by the qualified voters of the state. Confirmation by default occurs if the Legislature fails to reject an appointee within sixty calendar days of either the date of appointment, if made during the annual legislative session, or the convening date of the next annual legislative session, if made out of session. The Legislature is authorized to prescribe such provisions as may be necessary to carry out Sections two and three of this article.