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Missouri Abortion-Rights Groups Drop Referendum, File Lawsuit To Prevent Future Delays

Supporters of a referendum on House Bill 126 protest in downtown St. Louis on Friday afternoon.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Supporters of a referendum on House Bill 126 protest in downtown St. Louis on Aug. 2.

Updated at 11:46 a.m. Aug. 23 with a comment from Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft

Opponents of Missouri’s eight-week abortion ban have dropped their efforts to gather the needed 100,000 signatures to place a referendum on the November 2020 ballot. They claim Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft did not give them enough time to do so by Wednesday, when the law will take effect.

The abortion-rights coalition No Bans On Choice and the ACLU of Missouri have instead turned their attention to making sure state officials cannot block future referendums. On Thursday, they filed a lawsuit against Ashcroft, a Republican, alleging that the laws that allowed him to delay releasing the referendum’s language violate the state’s constitution.

The lawsuit, filed in Jefferson City, asks a Cole County Circuit Court judge to bar state officials from again preventing petition organizers from collecting signatures before the state completes administrative tasks during the 90-day period between a petition’s filing and its certification.

"Today we are challenging the whole statutory scheme that provides less than 90 days to collect signatures for a referendum,” ACLU of Missouri Legal Director Tony Rothert said. “In particular, the statutes that we’re challenging are those that do not allow people who want to put a referendum on the ballot to begin collecting signatures immediately.

"If that statue were not enforced, we could have begun collecting signatures almost three months ago,” he said.

Rothert said opponents of the law are certain that Missourians would have signed those petitions, ensuring that the referendum would be on the ballot. He said the plaintiffs want to keep state officials from doing so should state legislators pass another law that limits access to abortion.

"What we’re seeking here is declaratory judgment to prevent the Legislature and the Secretary of State from denying the right of referendum when inevitably they pass an anti-choice law in the future," Rothert said.

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.

Last week, when Ashcroft released language for a petition that would have put the law on November 2020 ballot, abortion-rights advocates accused him of delaying the release to prevent voters from deciding on the law. Ashcroft denied doing so.

Ashcroft's office said he would not comment on pending litigation. But in a statement, he criticized the coalition's approach.

"I am saddened in our society today, that frequently when organizations lose, their normal response is to whine and claim that the rules should not apply to them," Ashcroft said.

In an interview last week, Ashcroft said 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.

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.

Opponents of the abortion law said that after Ashcroft certified the ballot language, they collected 800 signatures in one day, which they cited as proof that they could have obtained the needed amount in 90 days.

“We knew we had to face reality, and we know we can’t ask our volunteers in good faith to go after this impossible task of collecting this many signatures in time,” said Robin Utz, treasurer of No Bans On Choice.

Now that the referendum is off the table, the coalition will direct its efforts toward registering voters in 2020, said Mallory Schwarz, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri.

“It’s a heartbreaking outcome, when there was so much enthusiasm and outrage from Missourians across the state, but we are not backing down from this effort,” Schwarz said.

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Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.