JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – A Missouri judge is rewriting ballot language for initiative petitions, asking voters if abortion should once again be legal after the ruling said the language written by Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft is “problematic.”
Supporters of the referendum accuse Ashcroft of writing misleading ballot summary language, which is why the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Missouri filed the lawsuit, leading a Cole County judge in Jefferson City to write the summaries himself.
It’s been a constant court battle over an initiative petition asking voters if abortion rights should be restored in Missouri.
“The Secretary of State used language that is poll-tested to be anti-abortion, and he also used language that would trigger a deep emotional response to voters because the ballot summary really is what every Missourian gets to see when they go into the ballot box to check yes or no,” Tori Schafer, deputy director of policy and campaigns for the ACLU of Missouri, said.
In the ballot summary the ACLU is calling misleading, Ashcroft asks voters whether to “allow for dangerous, unregulated and unrestricted abortions, from contraception to live birth, without requiring a medical license or potentially being subject to medical malpractice.” His summary would also ask voters to “nullify longstanding Missouri law, protecting the right to life, including but not limited to partial-birth abortion.”
“Look, no matter where you stand on the idea of abortions, and I think it’s pretty clear where I stand, if we’re going to have abortions, we should at least make sure we’re protecting the mother,” Ashcroft said.
After Judge Jon Beetem spent more than two hours earlier this month listening to arguments on why the ballot summary language for the proposed initiative petitions to restore abortion rights should be rewritten, he ruled Monday Ashcroft’s version “are problematic in that they are argumentative or do not fairly describe the purposes or probable effect of the initiative.”
“One of the problems is that the judge didn’t go through and compare my language in the initiative petition, so he can actually say this is why you say it isn’t right, here are the arguments for why it is,” Ashcroft said Tuesday.
Beetem rewrote each of the six ballot summaries. The first two sentences of each referendum is identical, asking voters if they want to amend the constitution to:
- “Establish a right to make decision about reproductive health care, including abortion and contraceptives, with any governmental interference of that right presumed invalid
- Remove Missouri’s Ban on abortion
“Our client is very happy with it,” Schafer said. “Very happy with Judge Beetem’s decision and we hope the court of appeals will have a very similar finding.”
Back in March, 11 petitions were filed with the Secretary of State’s office by Dr. Anna Fitz-James to roll back Missouri’s ban on abortion by adding protections to the constitution. Supporters want to ask voters to establish the right to reproductive freedom.
Earlier this summer, the Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments regarding the fiscal note, saying Attorney General Andrew Bailey had no authority to question the contents of Fitzpatrick’s fiscal note summary, giving Bailey 24 hours to certify the fiscal analysis.
“People need to know what they are voting yes or no on, and the Secretary of State’s language didn’t do that,” Schafer said.
Ashcroft said he is appealing the ruling, sending the case to state appellate court.
The ACLU said it will begin gathering the 170,000 signatures needed to get the question on the November 2024 ballot once appeals are exhausted. The signature collection process likely won’t start until after the appeals window closes.
“I would invite anyone to actually read the initiative petition, see what has happened in other states, and they will understand that we could have gone farther,” Ashcroft said.
In his decision, Beetem wrote that he found that “while the proposals have the greatest immediate impact on abortion, the absence of any reference to reproductive health care beyond is insufficient in that it would cause a voter to believe that abortion is the only health care comprising the initiatives.”
Another court challenge surrounding the petitions is what the financial impact would be on state and local government.
Republican State Auditor Scott Fitzpatrick estimates that if abortion becomes legal again, it would cost roughly $51,000 a year for local governments. As for the state, Fitzpatrick said the state would not lose its federal Medicaid funding and the impact on state agencies was undetermined.
The fiscal note lawsuit was filed by state Rep. Hannah Kelly, R-Mountain Grove, Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold and longtime anti-abortion advocate Kathy Forck. In his ruling, Beetem wrote that Fitzpatrick was under no obligation to do an independent analysis of the potential costs.