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Ashcroft’s Delay Makes Vote On Missouri’s 8-Week Ban 'Impossible,' Abortion-Rights Group Says

Protesters with the advocacy group No Bans On Choice demonstrate against HB 126 in downtown St. Louis on Aug. 2.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Protesters with the advocacy group No Bans On Choice demonstrate against HB 126 in downtown St. Louis on Aug. 2.

Updated at 12:15 p.m. on Thursday with Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft's comments

The abortion-rights group No Bans on Choice faces an "impossible" task to collect enough signatures on a petition that would allow voters to overturn a Missouri law that bans most abortions after eight weeks of pregnancy, officials from the committee said Wednesday. 

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft on Wednesday released the wording for the ballot initiative after a months-long legal battle. 

American Civil Liberties Union representatives say it’s unlikely they would collect the 100,000 signatures they need to place a referendum on the ballot before the law goes into effect on Aug. 28.

Abortion rights advocates in Missouri quickly accused Ashcroft of willfully withholding the initiative until the latest possible date to prevent the petition receiving enough signatures. They expressed outrage that Ashcroft had waited for so long.

“We are reviewing the ballot language released by Secretary Ashcroft today. He dragged his feet for 78 days before providing this ballot language, leaving Missourians with the impossible task of collecting 100,000 signatures in 14 days,” said Robin Utz, treasurer of the No BansOn Choice Committee. “He has effectively prevented voters from defeating the extreme eight-week abortion ban at the ballot box”

The Republican-controlled legislature passed the law in May, and Republican Gov. Mike Parson signed it into law. The ACLU then filed a petition to place the law up for a statewide vote in the November 2020 election.

In June, Ashcroft said he could not approve the referendum proposal because state law prohibits referenda on laws that contain “emergency clauses,” which go into effect immediately. The newly passed bill includes such a clause. It requires in certain circumstances both parents to be notified if a minor seeks an abortion.

An appeals court ruled in July that Ashcroft didn’t have the legal authority to reject the referendum, but didn’t order him to immediately release the petition in order for the ACLU to collect signatures.

Ashcroft's delay in releasing the petition leaves the ACLU just two weeks to collect the necessary signatures to place the referendum on the ballot. If the law goes into effect before the ACLU collects the names, the petition is rendered moot.

“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,” said Utz, of the No Bans on Choice committee. “Instead of doing his job, he played political games and blocked Missourians’ right to vote — all in an effort to block access to legal abortion in this state.”

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, in a photo taken at St. Louis Public Radio on June 28, 2018
Credit David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft said proponents of the referendum could have avoided delays.

In an interview on Thursday morning, Ashcroft pushed back against criticism that he slow-walked the process to approve the referendum.

For one thing, Ashcroft contended that the ACLU of Missouri erred by submitting the referendum to his office after Parson signed the measure into law. He said opponents of the abortion ban could have avoided a court fight had they turned in the referendum proposal before May 24.

“They missed their opportunity to file this when it would have gone through,” Ashcroft said. “The delay and the problems here are directly attributable to the ACLU failing to do what they needed to do when they were allowed to do it by the constitution. If they had filed this in a timely fashion, we would not have rejected it because it would not have violated the constitution since they would have filed it before the law went into effect.”

After the Western District Appeals Courtoverturned Ashcroft’s decision to reject the referendum, it did not require him to approve the ballot summary by July 19 as the ACLU of Missouri wanted. Ashcroft said he had to follow the process for approving referendums — including allowing time for public comment and having the attorney general’s office approve the ballot summary language.

He said his office read through the more than 1,100 responses to the referendum.

“There is a statutory requirement, it is the law, that there must be a 15-day comment period,” Ashcroft said. “So I would have violated the law if I had approved the language without allowing people to comment on the referendum.”

Ashcroft also said that he could have potentially waited longer to reject the referendum in June — or he could have prolonged the process further by asking the Missouri Supreme Court to review the appeals court decision.

He went onto say that “it’s ironic that individuals that are saying ‘let the people’s voice be heard’” and then saying "‘ignore the public hearing period that’s required by statute.’" He also said that the attorney general’s office needed time to review the ballot summary language. 

“They want to blame me for following the law,” Ashcroft said. “That’s what happens in politics. I just feel like the people should know the truth.”

Tony Rothert, the ACLU of Missouri’s legal director, said the referendum “could have been submitted before signature, but that would have saved only a handful of days (between passage and signature).” 

“Also, he was already precluded from rejecting and did so anyhow... he was determined to act outside the law and should stop blaming the victims of his unlawful behavior,” Rothert said.

Ashcroft said on Thursday that he went by prior court precedent in rejecting the referendum before allowing for signatures to be gathered.

Baker, the ACLU’s legislative and policy director added that Ashcroft “is the one who stopped the clock and delayed.” She went onto say that her group gave the governor a chance to veto the law — and when Parson didn’t they launched their referendum bid.

Correction: The lead photograph shows abortion rights supporters on Aug. 2 signing a petition for a referendum on Missouri's 8-week abortion ban. A previous version of this report misstated when that photo was taken. 

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Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.