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Abortion referendum approved for circulation, advocates call it ‘impossible task’

The Missouri Secretary of State issued ballot language for a petition seeking to give voters the final say in an sweeping anti-abortion bill. Advocates now have less than two weeks to gather more than 100,000 signatures.  

Those pushing for the referendum quickly accused Jay Ashcroft, Missouri’s chief elections officer, of playing political games to block the people’s right to vote. Robin Utz, treasurer of the No Bans On Choice Committee, said Ashcroft “dragged his feet” and left them with the “impossible task” of collecting signatures by Aug. 28 — when the law goes into effect. 

“It is outrageous that Secretary Ashcroft, Missouri’s chief elections officer, ran out the clock and blocked the people’s right to a citizen veto,” Utz said. 

Ashcroft maintained his office has treated this referendum the same as others — and said he could have “delayed” it further if that was what he had been trying to do.

“It’s unfortunately pretty common in politics that when people make a mistake they want to blame someone else,” Ashcroft told The Missouri Times, arguing the ACLU was in the wrong for not filing the petition until after the law’s emergency clause was already in place.

“Because they were recalcitrant and wasted 11 days and didn’t file it until after the governor had signed it, then I had to follow prior Supreme Court precedent, which I did,” Ashcroft said. “I’ll also mention that I didn’t take up all my time that I could have when I did it. I went ahead and rejected that before the time frame was even up.”

The ongoing referendum fight has been a bitter battle between Ashcroft and pro-abortion advocates.

In June, Ashcroft rejected the referendum petition filed by the ACLU of Missouri “for failure to comply with the requirements of the Missouri Constitution.” The issue, he said, is the emergency clause attached to the bill. The emergency clause resulted in a portion of the bill going into effect immediately after Republican Gov. Mike Parson signed it. The provision requires both parents to be notified if a minor seeks an abortion.

The vast majority of the provisions — banning abortion at eight weeks, along with “nestled” components to include restrictions at 14, 18, and 20 weeks — will go into effect on Aug. 28.

According to the fiscal note attached to the ballot language, “state sources may decrease by at least $4.9 million annually” and “local governmental entities anticipate a significant negative impact.”

The Western District Court of Appeals ordered the state to withdraw its rejection of the petition. The court ruled Ashcroft “was without authority” to deny the referendum based on constitutional grounds at that time. The Missouri Supreme Court refused to take up the case

Ashcroft also said the ACLU “delayed” the petition by asking the Missouri Supreme Court to take up the case, as well.

Part of the ACLU’s argument was if Ashcroft had not rejected the referendum, supporters could have started collecting signatures on July 18. Instead, with the process restarting after the objection was withdrawn, they are left with roughly two weeks to collect signatures.

Advocates will need to gather and submit signatures from 5 percent of legal voters in six of eight congressional districts — at least 100,126 Missourians — by Aug. 28 to put it on the ballot.

“Our commitment to protecting Missourians’ right to legal abortion is unwavering. The referendum is one tool to protect the rights of the people. There are others, and we will evaluate the best route forward to ensure Missourians retain control over their bodies, their decisions, and their democracy,” Utz said. 

At the end of July, Planned Parenthood and the ACLU filed a lawsuit in an attempt to stop the ban altogether.