Government & Politics

ACLU files lawsuit to change Missouri’s referendum process

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, which was left with just two weeks to gather more than 100,000 signatures to place a referendum challenging the state’s new abortion law on the 2020 ballot, filed a lawsuit Thursday to change the process.

If successful, the suit will not give the ACLU more time to pursue a referendum on the abortion statute, which goes into effect Aug. 28, according to Anthony Rothert, ACLU of Missouri legal director. In a week, its supporters gathered 800 signatures.

“The referendum on this particular House bill, the secretary of state has successfully run out the clock,” Rothert said.

The lawsuit, which was filed in Cole County Circuit Court, challenges the current requirements that must be met before signatures can be gathered. These are a 15-day public comment period, a fiscal analysis by the state auditor, and a ballot summary crafted by the secretary of state and reviewed by the attorney general.

The process can take up to 51 days, according to the lawsuit. The possibility for an “exceptional delay,” makes the current state law unconstitutional, the ACLU contends.

“That statute, with all the things that delay the ballot summary, deprive the people of the right they were granted in the (Missouri) Constitution — to have a right to referendum, to have sufficient time to get that on the ballot,” Rothert said.

If the courts find the statute to be invalid, the referendum could be circulated for signatures as soon as it is filed with the secretary of state, Rothert said. Referendum petitions include copies of the entire law, which referendum backers could refer to when talking to potential signers.

“We would rather have no ballot summary at all, than a bad one,” Rothert said.

A referendum differs from an initiative petition, which allows members of the public to pass laws through a popular vote. If a referendum is approved for the ballot, it freezes the law before implementation until voters decide whether to retain or veto it.

Citizens may call a referendum on a measure approved by the General Assembly and not vetoed by the governor as long as they collect signatures totaling 5 percent of the voters from two-thirds of the state’s congressional districts before the law is implemented.

The mechanism was last used in February 2017, when organized labor campaigned successfully to reverse a “right-to-work” law passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Eric Greitens. Before the 2018 vote, the last time a referendum was used was 1982.

“It’s one of the reasons we see the right to referendum used infrequently — there is always a time crunch,” Rothert said.

The ACLU, joined by a committee that supports reversing the abortion law called No Bans on Choice, sued Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, in his capacity as the state’s chief election official. Ashcroft’s office said it had not yet received notice of the lawsuit.

A large part of why the ACLU had a short time to gather signatures is because Ashcroft rejected the referendum days after it was filed, according to Rothert. The courts eventually found Ashcroft’s move to be illegal and ordered him to reinstate the petition.

However, the deadlines for administrative duties were reset, meaning Ashcroft had until Aug. 19 to approve the referendum, according to his office.

Ashcroft has said that the ACLU should have filed its referendum application earlier. The ACLU waited to submit the referendum until after Gov. Mike Parson signed the bill.

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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.