© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
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.

Missourians likely won’t vote on abortion legalization until November

Kurt Kloss, 63, of Webster Groves, signs a Missourians for Constitutional Freedom-led ballot petition in an attempt to legalize abortion in Missouri, alongside volunteer Stephen Wilder, 24, on Monday, April 1, 2024, in downtown St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Kurt Kloss, 63, of Webster Groves, signs a Missourians for Constitutional Freedom-led ballot petition to legalize abortion in Missouri, alongside volunteer Stephen Wilder, 24, on April 1 in St. Louis.

One of the questions about a ballot measure legalizing abortion in Missouri is when the state’s voters would actually decide the initiative.

Unless Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft uses a procedure aimed at speeding up the petition signature counting process, which his office says at this point he isn’t planning to do, it will be functionally impossible for signatures to be verified before the August primary.

That could have major political implications for the state’s general election cycle if the measure goes before voters in November.

Missourians for Constitutional Freedom is gathering signatures to legalize abortion up to fetal viability. The group has raised millions of dollars and recruited a large number of volunteer signature gatherers — putting abortion rights advocates in position to gather roughly 171,000 signatures by the May 5 deadline.

Missouri Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft speaks with potential voters on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024, at a Governor's Forum in Kansas City, Mo.
Dominick Williams
Special to the St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft speaks with potential voters on Feb. 17 at a governor's candidate forum in Kansas City.

One of the ways that Ashcroft’s office could expedite the signature verification process is by using a process called random sampling, which played a definitive role in getting a plan establishing Medicaid expansion before voters in August 2020. But Ashcroft didn’t use random sampling in 2022.

While there are 140 potential initiative petitions that were submitted to Ashcroft’s office, it’s likely that groups will only submit signatures for a handful of ballot items that were approved for signature circulation. If four or more petitions with signatures are submitted, Ashcroft’s office has four weeks to send petitions to local election officials for processing. They have until July 30 to send those signatures back to Ashcroft’s office.

“From the last Tuesday in July, we have two weeks to either issue a certificate of sufficiency or a certificate of insufficiency — meaning they didn’t get the required number of signatures,” Ashcroft spokesman JoDonn Chaney said. “So that is after the Aug. 6 primary in most cases.”

Even if Ashcroft issued what’s known as a certificate of sufficiency immediately, it would be too late for any initiative petition to appear on the August ballot — since absentee voting will have begun in late June.

“It is physically impossible to get on the August ballot unless they do random sampling,” said Chuck Hatfield, a lawyer who has represented groups circulating initiative petitions for years. “The governor can't call the election until it's certified, and they can't get it certified in time for him to put it on in August.”

Gov. Mike Parson’s spokesman, Johnathan Shiflett, said: “No decisions have been made as we have no way of knowing which petitions will be certified or not at this point.”

But he added that Parson “wants all options, primary or general elections, available to him when scheduling elections for any of the initiative petitions being circulated.”

“Regarding the abortion measure, Governor Parson is a strong and proven pro-life governor,” Shiflett said. “If he believes scheduling that measure for the August primary will best support the pro-life movement, then he expects to have that option.”

Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensberg, speaks on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, during an Education and Workforce Development Committee hearing at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, is one of a number of Republicans who would prefer that voters take up an abortion legalization measure in November primarily because he wants Missourians to vote on a ballot item making it harder to amend the state constitution in August.

August versus November

Barring a reversal from Ashcroft on using random sampling, the abortion initiative would likely appear on the November general election ballot unless Parson schedules a special statewide election beforehand.

“When abortion rights are on the ballot, abortion rights win,” said Mallory Schwarz, a spokesperson for Missourians for Constitutional Freedom. “No matter the time or place, our grassroots campaign has the momentum and we know the overwhelming majority of Missourians will vote to end Missouri’s total abortion ban and put families — not politicians — back in charge of personal medical decisions.”

Some Republicans, including GOP strategist Gregg Keller, wanted the abortion measure to go on the August primary ballot. He and others argued that since there will be a multitude of competitive Republican primaries, it may be easier to defeat an abortion legalization effort.

And other Republicans have expressed concern that putting a referendum on abortion rights on the November ballot could increase Democratic turnout and hurt GOP candidates in suburban state legislative districts.

“You see this time and time again in Missouri political history, 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,’” Keller said last year. “And then the party in power through its various abilities finds a way to put it on a different ballot.”

But putting the abortion measure in August would effectively doom an effort in the Missouri legislature to sequence a separate ballot item making it harder to amend the state constitution.

“Do I want to see abortion legalized in the state of Missouri? Heck, no, I don't. I'm very pro-life,” said state Sen. Denny Hoskins, who is one of eight GOP candidates running for secretary of state. “That is one of the issues that I believe that needs to go through this new IP (ballot) reform process.”

Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden said there aren’t many great options for Republicans when it comes to the abortion initiative. He said putting it in November would likely cause some state legislative races to be more competitive. And the Columbia Republican added there will almost certainly be lots of money spent to make sure any bid to make it harder to amend the constitution fails — which will make it less likely that using it to combat the abortion initiative will succeed.

“I think [Keller] is right, in that if you want to defeat the (abortion) measure, the best place to do it is in August,” said Rowden.

Statewide election impact

The political impact of abortion bans, like the one in Missouri, is receiving more national interest after court decisions either prohibited or severely restricted the procedure in Florida and Arizona.

Some Democrats have theorized that the issue may hurt GOP candidates, such as presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump, in closely divided states. But Kyle Kondik, a political analyst with the University of Virginia-based Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, said it’s possible it could have a minimal impact on statewide races in places like Missouri.

Because a number of Republicans either support abortion rights or are uncomfortable with stringent bans, Kondik said a ballot initiative that legalizes the procedure effectively allows GOP voters to support their party’s candidates — while implementing a policy that aligns with their personal values.

“And so my guess is that they easily understand their own position, they can place themselves on a spectrum of supporting abortion rights and say: ‘Hey, maybe I even think that this ballot issue is too permissive. However, it's closer to my position than this current law in Missouri, which is again among among the most draconian in the country,’” Kondik said. “So I can distinguish between my support for Republicans and my support for abortion rights and vote accordingly.”

All three major Republican candidates for governor — Ashcroft, Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe and Sen. Bill Eigel — oppose abortion rights. Kehoe has said he is amenable to loosening the state’s ban to include exceptions to people who become pregnant because of rape or incest.

A recent SLU/YouGov poll found that 24% of GOP respondents would support a ballot initiative that would legalize abortion up to fetal viability, which is defined as when a medical professional determines a fetus could survive outside the womb without extraordinary medical intervention.

“The best bet that Republicans have in the state is that they get voters to put their ‘red jerseys’ on and look at the abortion rights issue as a kind of partisan issue,” Kondik said. “But again, my guess is there'll be a significant number of voters who don't do that.”

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