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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

Abortion rights foes mull whether legalization should be on August or November ballot

Charas Norell, 28, of south St. Louis, demonstrates in support of abortion rights on Monday, July 4, 2022, in downtown St. Louis. “My body belongs to me, it doesn’t belong to anyone else,” she said. “I’m not going to stand for someone else taking my rights away.”
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Charas Norell, 28, of south St. Louis, demonstrates in support of abortion rights on July 4, 2022, in downtown St. Louis. Abortion rights proponents are trying to get a Missouri vote in 2024 that would scale back the state's abortion ban.

As backers of abortion legalization efforts continue to slog through the legal system, some Missouri Republicans are talking about whether the ballot items should be on the August primary ballot or the general election's in November.

But pushing the vote later, primarily motivated around depriving Democrats of a turnout boost in November, could complicate another GOP-led effort to make the Missouri Constitution more difficult to amend.

Two groups, Missourians for Constitutional Freedom and the Missouri Women and Families Research Fund,are trying to get initiatives to scale back the state’s ban on most abortions on the 2024 ballot. Both organizations are in court over how they are described to voters, which is often a critical factor in whether an initiative passes.

While time-consuming litigation has prompted questions about whether either group’s initiative will make next year’s ballot, abortion rights supporters expressed confidence they can gather the roughly 171,000 signatures needed. If abortion rights proponents succeed in getting their proposals before voters, some Republicans, including GOP political consultant Gregg Keller, expect that the vote will occur in August and not during the November general election.

“I would be willing to guarantee that if any of these do make it on the ballot, you're going to see Republicans in Jefferson City put it on the August portion of the ballot,” Keller said. “So I think that the ‘damage’ to Republicans is going to be limited.”

Keller is referring to the idea that abortion legalization initiatives could drive up Democratic turnout during a general election and, in turn, make statewide and legislative races more challenging for the GOP.

Gov. Mike Parson decides when ballot initiatives go before voters. The legislature could also pass a bill to put any measure with enough signatures on the August ballot, but it’s highly unlikely any abortion ballot will be certified until after the General Assembly adjourns.

Parson, a Republican, placed a measure expanding Medicaid on the August 2020 ballot. In 2004, Democratic Gov. Bob Holden put a constitutional amendment that prohibited gay marriage in the primary. Both of those measures passed during the lower-turnout election.

“You see this time and time again in Missouri political history,” Keller said. “One group comes in with this great idea of, ‘We're going to run this campaign, we're going to run it in this election cycle, and we're going to win this thing.’ And then the party in power through its various abilities finds a way to put it on a different ballot.”

Parson said last week that he would take into consideration whether there’s some sort of urgency to vote on a ballot initiative.

Missouri Women and Families Research Fund Jamie Corley said her group will be “prepared for either ballot.”

Abortion Action Missouri Executive Director Mallory Schwarz said that her organization fully expects "Missouri's anti-abortion state leadership to continue to try every possible manipulation to block voters from being able to participate in democracy and restore abortion access — including potentially putting an abortion vote on the August ballot."

"However, our state is not unfamiliar with such tactics," Schwarz said. "Missourians passed Medicaid expansion on an August ballot; Kansans defeated an attack on abortion on the August ballot; and just this summer Ohioans proved they saw through the state's attacks on democracy as attacks on abortion and demonstrably shut it down. This week SoS Ashcroft was shut down again, as another court saw through his blatantly political attacks on the democratic process. We're confident Missouri voters would do the same."

Schwarz was referring to a 2022 election in Kansas in which voters rejected a measure that would have made it easier for legislators to restrict abortion. The issue in Ohio was a proposal that would have raised the threshold to pass a constitutional amendment — which was widely seen as a way to scuttle an abortion rights measure.

Members of the Missouri House of Representatives mingle on Jan. 4 before the start of the legislative session at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri lawmakers are mulling whether to place a measure making the state constitution harder to amended on the 2024 ballot. If that measure is put before voters in August 2024, it wouldn't affect an abortion legalization measure that's also on the ballot during the state's primary.

An August vote likely would mean legalization will need only a majority

There would be another major ramification of having any abortion initiative in the August primary: Any legalization proposal would then almost certainly only need a simple majority to pass as opposed to a higher threshold.

A number of Republicans, including House Speaker Dean Plocher, have said they want to place a measure raising the bar to pass a constitutional amendment on the August primary. If that type of proposal passes, then any abortion legalization measure in November could require more than just a simple majority to be enacted in the state constitution.

But if voters are faced with a constitutional threshold change and an abortion initiative in August, then the abortion measure would only require a simple majority to pass. Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft said it would technically be possible for Parson to schedule the constitutional amendment boost ballot item before August, but added the governor is “probably going to leave it in November or probably move it to August.”

“Obviously, he has the authority to make a decision,” Ashcroft said. “What I would suggest is, we need to have a little more trust in the people in the state, and we need to worry more about policy and less about politics. I believe that when the people of this state understand what [the abortion initiatives] would do, they will vote them down.”

Ashcroft has been advocating for making it more difficult to amend the constitution since being elected secretary of state in 2016. He said his motivation for supporting that effort goes beyond his opposition to abortion rights.

“I don't think we should amend our constitution unless we have broad agreement throughout the state,” he added.

It’s an open question whether voters will actually support any effort that makes it more difficult to amend the Missouri Constitution — especially after what happened in Ohio.

State Rep. Adam Schwadron, a St. Charles County Republican and candidate for secretary of state, noted that there will be a lot of active GOP primaries for statewide and state legislative offices next August. And that could also play a role in what to do with an abortion initiative if it ends up getting enough signatures.

“What the governor decides to do will be entirely up to the governor,” Schwadron said.I can see there will probably be a lot more Republican voters showing up to vote and pulling a Republican ballot [in August]. And so, it is possible that they would vote for the constitutional change and against any changes on the constitution for abortion.”

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft speaks in favor of bills that would, in part, ban the teaching of “critical race theory” in schools on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, during an Education and Workforce Development Committee hearing at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City, Mo.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft is appealing an court ruling that largely upheld a Cole County judge's rewrite of abortion-related ballot measures.

Legal fight continues

Meanwhile, the legal fight over how Missourians for Constitutional Freedom’s 11 ballot items are described could be nearing an end.

An appeals court on Tuesday largely upheld a lower court’s ballot summaries of the measures, which was effectively a defeat for Ashcroft.

“For nearly eight months, the politicians that make up our anti-abortion supermajority and arms of the state have weaponized their power to undermine the fundamental tenets of our democracy,” Schwarz said. “They are scared; they know that abortion is popular and that if given the opportunity, Missourians — like Kansans, like we expect to see from Ohioans — would vote to restore abortion access.”

Ashcroft is planning to appeal the ruling.

“We stand by our language and believe it fairly and accurately reflects the scope and magnitude of each petition,” Ashcroft said in a statement.

An attorney for the Missouri Women and Families Research Fund added that the group will likely start gathering signatures while trying to get a different ballot summary and fiscal note through the courts.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.