Indiana Right to Life voter guide less transparent after abortion moves

By: - October 26, 2022 7:00 am

Anti-abortion protestors wait outside of the Senate Chamber on July 25 to testify against the Senate’s proposed abortion ban, which they say doesn’t go far enough. (Whitney Downard / Indiana Capital Chronicle)

The state’s leading anti-abortion organization, Indiana Right to Life (IRTL), has released its latest voter guide for Hoosiers seeking information on candidates but some decry the lack of transparency in changes to the scorecard.

The 2022 survey, distributed to candidates running for federal or state offices, is markedly different from its 2020 counterpart. The 2020 version included detailed breakdowns of each candidate’s response to every survey question while the 2022 version includes just four designations: does or does not support pro-life legislation, mixed and did not respond. 

The voter guide itself doesn’t include IRTL’s process for determining which candidates received which designation, but Mike Fichter, the organization’s president, said it was based on a combination of factors including survey responses and voting records. 

Mike Fichter, president and CEO of Indiana Right to Life (From the Indiana Right to Life website)

That means that even Republican candidates who didn’t respond could get a “does support” designation based on their previous record. In the 2020 guide, dozens of sitting Republican lawmakers didn’t respond. In 2022, no sitting Republican lawmaker was given the “did not respond” designation.

“(IRTL) decided to produce a more concise presentation of candidate positions following feedback from supporters who felt previous voter guides were too detailed, and the print too small, to be effective,” Fichter said in an emailed response to questions. “The ultimate measure of any voter guide is its usefulness. Feedback on the new style in 2022 has been very positive.”

Many new candidates from both major parties didn’t respond to the survey. Some of the first-time candidates, without a solid campaign apparatus, may not have the ability or inclination to respond to the organization.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that there were some candidates who were tough to track down because we have a fair amount of first-time candidates who aren’t used to getting all these questions or may have simply not put in campaign strategy time to respond to all of them,” said Andrew Downs, a former political science professor at Purdue University Fort Wayne. 

Fichter said that IRTL didn’t “hand hold” candidates to make them respond, and had even corrected the survey when one candidate said their response wasn’t included. 

“If we are contacted by candidates who believe they did respond but were improperly excluded, we make every effort to update our online scorecard in a timely manner,” Fichter said. “In cases where a candidate does not respond, we advise voters to contact the candidate directly to ask about their positions on issues.”

But Downs observed that some candidates may purposefully not respond, especially if they’re a Republican challenging a Democrat in a purple district.

“The Dobbs decision wasn’t uniformly loved and (the near-total abortion ban in) Senate Bill 1 didn’t make a lot of people happy,” Downs said. “So you might, as a candidate, want to distance yourself from that.”

Lawmaker responses to their designations

Sen. Ron Alting, R-Lafayette, was one of four GOP lawmakers who received a “mixed” designation from the organization, along with Sens. Kyle Walker and Jon Ford as well as Rep. Ann Vermilion.

All voted against the near-total abortion ban, believing it was too strict, and are up for re-election.

Alting said his constituents hav been supportive of his decision, even pro-life Republicans, many of whom said they actually wanted a less restrictive ban at 15 weeks that included exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother. 

Here are some questions from the 2022 General Election survey:

-Will you vote only for party and caucus leadership that is committed to protecting innocent life from conception to natural death?

-Do you support your political party’s national platform on abortion?

-Do you support current Indiana law stating that human physical life begins when a human ovum
is fertilized by a human sperm?

-Under what circumstances do you believe abortion should be legal? (Mark all that apply.)
A. Abortion should never be legal.
B. Life of the mother only
C. Rape and/or incest
D. Other
E. Abortion should be legal in all cases

“I’ll tell you why – because they live in the real world. They understand that a 15-year-old can be brutally raped… and not go home to tell mom and dad because she’s scared to death,” Alting said. “It may pass the 10-week (cutoff) before she thinks to go home and tell them and that’s why the 15 (weeks cutoff) is very, very important. We don’t live in a perfect society.”

IRTL has maintained that they would only support a total ban on abortion, with the only exception being for the life of the mother. The current law — on hold due to several legal battles — allows exceptions for rape or incest victims up to 10 weeks post-fertilization, as well as for the life of the mother and fatal fetal anomalies. 

Just one incumbent Republican lawmaker didn’t receive a supportive or mixed designation from the organization: New Albany Rep. Ed Clere, who also voted against the near-total abortion ban, was marked as not supporting pro-life legislation. 

Clere said he didn’t return the organization’s general election survey, though he said he answered the organization’s primary election questionnaire. But unlike past voting guides, none of the sitting elected officials were designated as such and he was singled out.

“The voter guide is misleading, at least in my case,” Clere said. “Because I have supported pro-life legislation year after year… I’ve always considered myself a pro-life legislator and I still do.”

Clere’s assertion that he returned the primary voter guide couldn’t be confirmed because the IRTL’s previous voter guides are no longer on their webpage. To compare to the 2020 publication, the Indiana Capital Chronicle used the Wayback Machine, which archives some internet web pages. 

Fichter clarified that this year’s scorecard was evaluated based on a combination of factors, including: “surveys, voting records, public statements, in-person discussions and more”.

Downs said that evaluations based on yes or no votes for specific information are more informative but can be complicated if one only considers a tailored list of bills or doesn’t include procedural votes on things like amendments. 

“That aside, groups that are sending out information are doing it so that targeted voters receive a message,” Downs said. “That message may be ‘Vote for Person X, because they do what we want.’”

Impact moving forward

Nearly every race had its candidates in place before the Dobbs decision was released, meaning that candidates motivated either way on abortion access might not have considered running until this summer. Downs said he thought the more interesting question would be whether abortion continued to be an issue moving forward.

Andy Downs, a former political science professor at Purdue University -Fort Wayne (From Purdue University – Fort Wayne website)

“There are people who might have run offense had they known about the Dobbs decision before the deadline to file,” Downs said. “The question is how many people who ran this year… will continue their campaigns into ‘24?”

But, in the 2023 session, Downs was confident that some legislators would attempt to tackle abortion again. 

“I think it’s safe to say that there will still be legislation introduced. We know there are people who didn’t think (the ban) went far enough… (and) there will be people who try to walk it back a little bit,” Downs said.

However, the likelihood of leadership allowing the legislation to move forward would be low, particularly since there are many competing priorities for the budget-writing session. Downs said that lawmakers might delay passing other legislation until they receive more clarity from the U.S. Supreme Court on lingering questions.

For his part, Alting said future abortion legislation would depend on whether leadership wants to go through the process again, which included late nights and prolonged hours of public testimony.

“I don’t think they’ve got the votes to make it more restrictive; I don’t think that will happen,” Alting said. “So hopefully leadership will not let that go on and make us concentrate on subjects like this versus the budget and other topics we need to focus on.”


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Whitney Downard
Whitney Downard

A native of upstate New York, Whitney previously covered statehouse politics for CNHI’s nine Indiana papers, focusing on long-term healthcare facilities and local government. Prior to her foray into Indiana politics, she worked as a general assignment reporter for The Meridian Star in Meridian, Mississippi. Whitney is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University (#GoBonnies!), a community theater enthusiast and cat mom.