Government & Politics

Ashcroft defends review of abortion referendum; says any delays were caused by ACLU

Here’s how strict Missouri’s new abortion law is

Missouri’s new abortion law, set to take effect Aug. 28, includes many new restrictions.
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Missouri’s new abortion law, set to take effect Aug. 28, includes many new restrictions.

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft rejected charges that his anti-abortion views led him to “run out the clock” on plans for a referendum to challenge Missouri’s restrictive new law, contending Thursday that any delays in approving the petition were the fault of its supporters.

Ashcroft, a Republican, approved the referendum application Wednesday, giving backers just two weeks to collect the more than 100,000 valid signatures required for placement of the measure on the 2020 statewide ballot. Supporters say the shortened timeline makes that an impossible feat.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, along with a coalition of advocates known as No Bans on Choice, charged Ashcroft with dereliction of duty. They said his opposition to abortion caused him to approve the petition late, effectively robbing Missourians of their ability to vote on the issue. They have given voice to that view in rallies held around the state, where they have thrown mock ballots into trash cans.

“(Ashcroft) has effectively prevented voters from defeating the extreme eight-week abortion ban at the ballot box,” No Bans on Choice Treasurer Robin Utz said. “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. 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.”

Speaking Thursday for the first time on the matter during a visit to the Missouri State Fair, Ashcroft said the fault lay with the ACLU. Rather than wait for the governor to sign the bill into law, which he did on May 24th, Ashcroft said, the ACLU should have filed its application the day the legislation passed both legislative chambers, on May 17.

By waiting, the ACLU allowed part of the law to go into effect, he said. Lawmakers added an emergency clause to part of the bill, which allowed that provision to become effective upon the governor’s signature. Most of the law, including a ban on abortions after 8 weeks of pregnancy, goes into force Aug. 28, the effective date for all Missouri bills without an emergency clause.

Ashcroft said court precedent led him to conclude he couldn’t accept a referendum that challenged a law already implemented. He threw the referendum application out on June 6, triggering a court fight that effectively froze the process.

“If they had filed that before (the bill) went into effect, we would have treated it the same way we treated the right-to-work referendum,” Ashcroft said.

Ashcroft was referring to the referendum filed in 2017 by organized labor, which sought to reverse the law banning unions from requiring dues.

That referendum application was submitted hours after then-Gov. Eric Greitens signed the bill. Ashcroft’s speedy approval was lauded by backers at the time. Unlike the abortion bill, the anti-union measure did not have an emergency clause. And it was signed in February, giving referendum proponents months to gather signatures before the Aug. 28 deadline.

“With right-to-work, a lot of conservatives were unhappy with me because I didn’t play games with (the referendum), because I followed the law,” Ashcroft said. “With (the abortion law) the ACLU is mad at me because I followed the law. If people are mad at me because I followed the law, then I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.”

Tony Rothert, ACLU of Missouri’s legal director, pointed out that Ashcroft lost the court battle and acted illegally by throwing the referendum out when he did. The Missouri Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court’s decision to order Ashcroft to approve the referendum.

He called Ashcroft’s criticism “disingenuous.”

“He was wrong on the law,” Rothert said. “The court said he was wrong on the law. There was no reason to believe he wouldn’t have broken the law even if (we filed) earlier.”

Deadlines were reset after the courts ordered Ashcroft to reinstate the referendum July 12.

After a mandatory 15-day comment period, which ended July 27, Ashcroft’s office sent ballot language for Attorney General Eric Schmitt to review three days earlier than legal limits allow, on Aug. 2, according to Maura Browning, Ashcroft’s spokeswoman. Schmitt’s office, which took the full 10 days permitted in state law, finished Monday.

Ashcroft said he provided the referendum five days earlier than what was allowed by law, which he calculated to be Aug. 19.

“If I had wanted to run out the clock, I could have run it out a lot more,” Ashcroft said.

Supporters of the referendum will continue to gather signatures and weigh their options in the next couple of days depending on how the initial drive goes, Rothert said.

In the meant time, No Bans On Choice said it would scrutinize the 100-word ballot summary submitted by Ashcroft.

The ballot language describes the new law as one that would “provide the unborn child with the same protections as those already born” and “prohibit abortions at eight weeks of gestation (at which time there is a medically detected heartbeat), except in cases of medical emergency.”

Schmitt’s office is tasked with looking at the language to determine that it is “neither intentionally argumentative nor likely to create prejudice either for or against the proposed measure.” A request for comment was not returned by his office.

Sara Baker, the ACLU of Missouri’s legislative director, said the language is “far” from meeting the criteria set out in law.

“It’s definitely not impartial,” Baker said.

Browning said the ballot language mimics verbiage in the legislation passed by the Missouri General Assembly.

“This is a bill that is abortion-related and that means that it’s going to include the terms that are involved in House Bill 126 the way the legislature wrote it,” Browning said.

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Crystal Thomas covers Missouri politics for The Kansas City Star. An Illinois native and a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, she has experience covering state and local government.