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‘Ashcroft is a coward!’: ACLU, state reps rally in support of abortion referendum

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Rep. Doug Clemens is proud of Missouri. But he isn’t so proud to be a member of the General Assembly, he said Friday. 

Speaking to about a dozen people gathered in the Capitol rotunda Friday afternoon, Clemens stressed his disappointment with the passage of HB 126 — a strict abortion ban set to go into effect later this month — and Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s rejection of referendum petitions seeking to put the law to a vote. 

“Today we are here because someone took an oath just like mine — to defend the Constitution of the United States and to defend the Constitution of the state of Missouri — and he is not fulfilling his responsibilities,” Clemens said. “All I’m saying is we want to have a say in our government.” 

Clemens told The Missouri Times he plans to congregate with other Democrats in the interim to come up with additional legislation to “counter” HB 126

Rep. Doug Clemens said he plans to convene with other Democrats in the interim to come up with a “counter” to HB 126 (THE MISSOURI TIMES/KAITLYN SCHALLHORN).

“People are really disheartened right now, but they’re also very, very angry,” Clemens, a Democrat from St. Ann, said. “I’m trying to get people to channel that anger into changing the face of politics in Missouri.” 

“I think the party in control has finally started to push its limits on what people will tolerate,” he added. 

Among those who are angry is Rep. LaDonna Appelbaum, a Democrat from the St. Louis area. 

“These constant attacks on reproductive rights are unacceptable,” Appelbaum said. “The secretary of state has an obligation to allow the people to exercise their right to a referendum.”

“Secretary Ashcroft’s refusal to do so is cowardly. Secretary Ashcroft is a coward,” she said to cheers. “If these right-wing politicians are convinced that their policies represent the majority of Missourians, then they’d let voters have their voice.” 

Ashcroft rejected three referendum petitions — two from GOP megadonor David Humphreys and one from the ACLU — that sought to put the abortion law to a vote. Ashcroft said an emergency clause attached to the bill — meaning a portion of it went into effect immediately after Gov. Mike Parson signed it — prevented him from approving the petitions. 

An appellate court ordered Ashcroft withdraw his rejection of the ACLU’s petition based on constitutional grounds and “immediately” send written notice to the organization approving the referendum as sufficient to form. 

The Secretary of State’s Office has 23 days — including a 15-day comment period — after the form of the petition is approved to draft ballot summary language. Every referendum received is sent to the Auditor’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office.

Signatures can’t be collected until the ballot language is approved. Then, the ACLU will need to gather signatures from 5 percent of legal voters in six of the eight congressional districts — at least 100,126 people — by August 28 to put it on the ballot. 

Supporters of the referendum have blasted Ashcroft for denying them in the first place since it has shortened the time span which they have to gather signatures. As of Friday, the ballot language still had yet to be approved. 

Friday’s rally was hosted by the ACLU of Missouri with help from Planned Parenthood and the Cole County Democrats. Other events were scheduled in Kansas City, Springfield, and St. Louis Friday as well. 

Aside from voicing support of the referendum petition, volunteers told supporters to encourage others to register to vote. At the end of the event, Holly Bickmeyer, an ACLU volunteer who organized the Jefferson City rally, dumped a bucket of mock ballots into the trash. 

“The fact that our secretary of state is taking away our constitutional right to have a referendum on bills that we don’t agree with is just disgusting, it’s infuriating, it’s ridiculous,” Bickmeyer, who lives in Belle, told The Missouri Times. “I am angry as a voter, I am angry as a Missourian, I am angry as a Democrat, I am angry as a woman. I’m angry.” 

The ACLU and Planned Parenthood have filed a lawsuit in attempt to block the abortion bill from fully going into law on Aug. 28. The joint complaint filed earlier this week with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri accused state officials of having “engaged in a target campaign against abortion” for years. 

Parson, Attorney General Eric Schmitt, and Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) Director Randall Williams are named as defendants in the suit. 

HB 126 bans abortions after eight weeks and included several “nestled” components — designed to withstand legal challenges — with restrictions at 14, 18, and 20 weeks. It does not include exemptions for rape or incest victims. 

The emergency clause, which was triggered immediately upon Parson’s signature, requires both parents of a minor be notified if she seeks an abortion.