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Ashcroft says criticism over referendum handling is ‘unfounded’

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft is pushing back against criticisms over how he handled a petition seeking to give voters the final say in a sweeping anti-abortion law. 

“The criticism of my handling of the referendum petition is completely unfounded,” Missouri’s chief election officer, a Republican, said in a statement. “I have not played politics when making my decisions. I take my responsibility to the people of Missouri, to the law and to the constitution seriously, and I’m willing to fight back when my honor is called into question.”

Pro-choice advocates have accused Ashcroft of playing political games with the referendum petition on HB 126. Robin Utz, treasurer of the No Bans On Choice Committee, said Ashcroft “dragged his feet” and left them with the “impossible task” of collecting 100,000 signatures in two weeks. 

Those seeking to put the measure to a vote of the people ultimately gave up on the effort, instead choosing file court challenges. At the end of July, Planned Parenthood and the ACLU of Missouri filed a lawsuit in an attempt to stop the ban altogether. And last week, the ACLU and No Bans on Choice filed a lawsuit alleging state statutes on the referendum process are inconsistent with the Missouri Constitution. 

In all, the referendum fight has been a bitter battle between Ashcroft and pro-choice advocates.

He originally rejected the petition because of the emergency clause attached to HB 126, resulting in one provision of the bill already being in effect when the referendum was filed. 

However, 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

That started the approval process over. Once the referendum was approved to form, it was sent to the state auditor and attorney general for various tasks before the secretary of state could approve ballot language.

On Aug. 14, Ashcroft issued ballot language for the referendum, giving advocates less than two weeks to gather more than 100,000 signatures.   

“We approved this referendum in just 42 days – faster than our average,” Ashcroft said. “I did not wait, for any reason, to approve this petition after the court ruling. However, there is a constitutional and statutory process to which every petition must adhere, and the referendum of HB 126 is no different.”