published Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

Poll finds little backing for legislature control of abortions

Other poll results

• Eighty-six percent of voters support Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's initiative granting free tuition to students attending two-year colleges in Tennessee.

• Fifty-eight percent said they back the state's Common Core education standards, which came under attack in the Legislature this year, prompting a one-year delay. But there's a partisan divide on the issue. Seventy-six percent of Democratic voters support Common Core. But Republican voters were more likely to be critical; among GOP voters, only 44 percent support it.

• With the August GOP primary election less than three months away, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., continues to hold a "commanding lead." Alexander has a 64 percent favorability rating among Republican voters. That compares to 20 percent for best-known opponents, state Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas.

Even worse, Carr has made little recent headway in making himself known to voters, with 55 percent saying they've never heard of him.

• The poll indicates only a slim majority of Tennesseans kept up with the controversy over the United Auto Workers' efforts to organize Volkswagen's auto assembly plant in Chattanooga.

Just 54 percent of those surveyed said they heard or read "anything about plant workers at the at the Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga deciding not to join the UAW. Forty-six percent said they had not read or heard anything about it.

But East Tennesseans, where the battle raged between the UAW and Republican politicians, were more familiar with the issue. Sixty-three percent of voters in the eastern part of the state had heard of the vote.

NASHVILLE — Only about one in four Tennessee voters currently backs giving the state Legislature more power to regulate abortion, according to a poll released Wednesday.

The latest Vanderbilt Poll shows 71 percent of the 1,245 registered voters surveyed said they oppose changing the Tennessee Constitution to grant state government more power over regulation.

If approved, Amendment 1 on the November ballot would overturn a 2000 state Supreme Court ruling that limited legislators ability to place new restrictions on abortion. State lawmakers would still face some restrictions under federal court rulings.

"Only 23 percent at this point indicate approval of giving the state Legislature the power to regulate abortion," said Josh Clinton, a Vanderbilt University political science professor and the poll's co-director. "Overwhelmingly, 71 percent disapprove of that."

Clinton quickly added, however, that "now, who knows how this is going to translate in November" with an expected political battle between abortion rights opponents and advocates over the amendment.

"At this point there's not a lot of favorability toward increasing the power of the state Legislature to regulate or change the Tennessee state Constitution and give them more power to regulate abortion in this state," he noted.

John Geer, another Vanderbilt political science professor and poll co-director, said the poll may reflect more voters' hesitation in granting such power to state lawmakers than their views on abortion.

The poll was conducted April 28 to May 14 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percent. Registered voters were contacted via landline phones and cellphones.

In another surprising poll finding, three out of every four voters surveyed said they support legalizing marijuana in some form, be it for personal use or only for medicinal use.

The survey found 76 percent support legalization when both categories are combined. Forty-four percent said marijuana should be legal only for medicinal use while 32 percent said it should be legal for personal use.

Just 22 percent said it should not be legal.

The poll also picked up on a yawning generational divide among Tennessee voters. Forty-one percent of those opposing any legalization of pot were 65 or older. But only 12 percent against legalization were between ages 18 to 35.

During this year's legislative session, lawmakers passed a limited bill by Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, that authorized a limited medical-school study into the efficacy of low-THC content marijuana oil in the treatment of certain intractable seizures.

But a bill legalizing the broader use of medical marijuana failed to catch fire yet again.

The poll's findings on the abortion amendment drew criticism from Tennessee Right to Life President Brian Harris, who questioned their accuracy "in a state where voters have elected overwhelming pro-life majorities to the state house, to Congress and to the governor's office.

"Tennesseans are pro-life and favor pro-life candidates and pro-life policies," Harris said in a statement.

As fall approaches," Harris said, "voter attention will become increasingly focused on our state's stark abortion-on-demand policy which prevents the enforcement of virtually any meaningful safeguards for women and the unborn."

The Tennessee Right to Life group and other supporters hope to raise $2.5 million to frame the issue.

Jeff Teague, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee, said the polling "shows what we really know ... that the majority of Tennesseans really feel like it's best that personal private medical decisions be left up to women in consultation with their family, their faith and their doctors' advice."

And, he said, they believe "there shouldn't be politicians interfering with their private decisions."

The state Supreme Court's decision among other things blocked a new law requiring 72-hour waiting periods for women seeking an abortion.

While the Tennessee ruling goes further than the federal Roe v. Wade decision, Teague said state lawmakers have still been able to target abortion providers with a law requiring them to have hospital-admitting privileges in the same county or adjacent county as the abortion facility.

Amendment 1 says: "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."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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