Government & Politics

Protesters pressure Ashcroft to OK abortion referendum, but it may be too late

Missouri State Rep. LaKeySha Bosley, right, addresses the crowd during a protest outside the St. Louis office of Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft. Abortion-rights activists are upset Ashcroft delayed issuing ballot language needed to start collecting signatures on a referendum that would force a public vote on a new Missouri law that bans abortions at eight weeks of pregnancy or later.
Missouri State Rep. LaKeySha Bosley, right, addresses the crowd during a protest outside the St. Louis office of Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft. Abortion-rights activists are upset Ashcroft delayed issuing ballot language needed to start collecting signatures on a referendum that would force a public vote on a new Missouri law that bans abortions at eight weeks of pregnancy or later. AP

In rallies around the state Friday, supporters of a referendum that could reverse Missouri’s new abortion law urged Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft to allow them to start gathering signatures, though time already may have run out.

The referendum, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri on May 28, would allow voters in 2020 to approve or repeal a law that criminalizes abortions after eight weeks of pregnancy.

An appellate court ordered Ashcroft on July 8 to approve the petition for signatures after Ashcroft threw it out in June. However, both the appellate court and the Missouri Supreme Court said they could not speed Ashcroft’s approval and allowed state-mandated deadlines to restart upon the date of the court order.

If both Ashcroft and Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who is responsible for reviewing the ballot language, take the maximum time allotted, the petition could be delivered to signature gatherers by Aug. 14.

That would leave about two weeks for backers to collect more than 100,000 signatures to make the ballot. The law is set to go into effect by Aug. 28.

Baker said that as of Friday, it had been 67 days since the ACLU submitted its referendum application.

“That’s why we’ve argued the Secretary of State is literally robbing people of their constitutional rights,” Baker said. “They are supposed to have 90 days to collect signatures. He’s giving them essentially two weeks to collect over 100,000 signatures.”

The Secretary of State’s office did not return a request for comment.

Sara Baker, the ACLU of Missouri’s legislative policy director, said it was not possible to collect more than 100,000 signatures in two weeks.

She said the ACLU would not discourage supporters from collecting signatures. Oftentimes, campaigns turn to paid signature gatherers in similar scenarios, but the short time frame makes that unlikely, Baker said.

“At this point, it would be an exorbitant cost and probably impossible to do,” Baker said.

Supporters gathered Friday in Kansas City, Jefferson City, St. Louis and Springfield to voice their disapproval as the referendum process continues to drag.

In Kansas City, about 50 protesters stood in front of the Missouri State Office Building on East 13th Street, holding white and pink signs that read “Ashcroft stole my vote” or “Health care is a right not a privilege.”

Participants cast mock votes for the abortion bill on ballots, which were then symbolically dumped into a trashcan that read “#TRASHCROFT.” A large poster of a pink uterus putting up two middle fingers served as a backdrop.

“The energy is up, and the energy is high for organizing people to vote,” Justice Gatson, the Kansas City protest’s lead organizer, said.

Charisma Sewell, a political science student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said Friday was the first time she had participated in a protest. She said believes it is a women’s choice whether to terminate a pregnancy.

“Even though some people say it’s not important and some people say that our vote doesn’t matter, I believe that it does,” Sewell said. “I’m going to show up and fight and talk about it until everyone hears me.”

In Jefferson City, about 20 people held signs in the Capitol rotunda.

Nancy Ames, 62, of Jefferson City, said she would have volunteered to gather signatures if a petition had been approved.

“It’s infuriating,” Ames said. “(Ashcroft) could have been done in June.”

As a mother, grandmother and retired nurse, Ames said she supported a women’s right to choose, especially because there is a lack of adequate sexual education in the state.

“This is a women’s decision about the course her life is going to take,” Ames said.

Baker, who attended the St. Louis rally, said the ACLU’s focus for the next month is a voter registration drive, in an effort to to “keep elected officials accountable.” About 1,000 people who have volunteered to collect signatures will be redirected to the drive, she said.

“Two weeks is not a possible time frame (for the signature gathering), but at the same time, that doesn’t mean we are done fighting the abortion ban,” Baker said. “Referendum is one tool and there are other tools, and we are going to do all of them.”

Planned Parenthood, with legal support from the ACLU, has already instigated a legal challenge of the abortion ban by filing a federal lawsuit Tuesday.

The first hearing, in which a judge could issue a preliminary injunction freezing the law during the court case, is set for Aug. 26, two days before the law’s implementation date.

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