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Some Organizers for Arkansas Abortion Ballot Measure Fear for Their Safety

The recent doxxing of signature gatherers is an outgrowth of increasingly aggressive tactics by anti-abortion groups.

Caroline Morgan, a volunteer with Progressive Arkansas Women, holds an umbrella to block anti-abortion demonstrators as people sign petitions at an event at the Saline County Library in Bryant, Arkansas, on April 13, 2024.

One woman said she has been called a murderer at public events. Another said she was followed by a protester from location to location. A third stopped posting publicly about her real-time whereabouts.

These are the realities of gathering signatures to put abortion rights on the ballot in deep-red Arkansas, one of the most anti-abortion states in the country.

Organizers and volunteer signature-gatherers regularly deal with harassment and intimidation in the field. In Arkansas, the risks of this work were underscored this month after a conservative group posted online the names of nearly 80 paid signature gatherers that it obtained through a public records request. Advocates leading the petition drive described the incident as a form of doxxing, the release of a person’s personal information with malicious intent.

“The reactions have become more heated, from just a polite decline to, ‘I’m going to find you and kill you,’” said Gennie Diaz, communications director for Arkansans for Limited Government, the group heading the effort to add an abortion rights ballot initiative this November. “It’s escalated in probably the last four to six weeks.”

Arkansas, where abortion is banned in almost all cases, is one of 11 states where voters could weigh in directly on abortion in the general election. Arkansans for Limited Government has until July 5 to gather just over 90,000 signatures to get the measure, the Arkansas Right to Abortion Initiative, on the November ballot. The group believes it’s on track to meet the deadline.

Abortion ballot measures are undefeated since the Supreme Court’s 2022 overturning of Roe v. Wade ended the federal right to abortion, including in red states — though not as red as Arkansas.

Destiny Sinclair is one of the canvassers in Arkansas whose name was made public last week by the Family Council, a conservative group that opposes the amendment. Sinclair said she had not completely processed the implications until Arkansans for Limited Government put out a statement condemning the action. People then started checking in on her out of concern.

“One of the first things I did was I went and I Googled myself, because it kind of lets you see what anyone else will be able to find out about me,” she said. “It really is daunting — you can find out a lot about a person on the internet.”

The Family Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Sinclair had already stopped sharing public posts about her canvassing whereabouts. In the days since her name and city of residence were made public, she has tried to work in pairs with other canvassers. It was already a best practice suggestion among the group, but it now has more significance for Sinclair, who finds herself on high alert.

“It’s really just looking at someone and wondering if they know who I am,” she said.

The proposed measure would guarantee a right to abortion up to 18 weeks of pregnancy and after that, in cases of rape, incest and threat to the life of the pregnant person. Less than half of Arkansans, 46 percent, believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases while 13 percent believe it should be illegal in all cases, according to polling from the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute.

In some red states, Republican officials have waged legal challenges to keep abortion rights measures off the ballot and mounted broader attacks on the citizen-led initiative process. Anti-abortion activists have also led grassroots campaigns to discourage voters from signing initiative petitions and in some cases, advocates say, harass canvassers and misinform voters about the initiative process.

In South Dakota, the secretary of state’s office said an anti-abortion group impersonated state employees in “scam” phone calls to voters who had previously signed a petition for an abortion rights measure, urging them to withdraw their support.

In Montana, where anti-abortion activists have filmed volunteers in public places to disrupt canvassing, the coalition working to put abortion rights on the ballot has opted against holding large public events or openly sharing the location of its campaign offices, the Montana Free Press reported.

The release of signature gatherers’ names in Arkansas is an outgrowth of the increasingly aggressive tactics by anti-abortion groups, said Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, the executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC), a clearinghouse of resources and support for progressive ballot measures.

“The purpose and the intent is to intimidate and dissuade people from participating in the democratic process,” she said. “And while this is alarming, this should actually reenergize and reinvigorate people to continue participating.”

The names of paid canvassers in Arkansas were obtained through a legitimate public records request and their release was not illegal, though the coalition says it was intended to intimidate. The information of unpaid volunteers was not made public, but several said they have faced friction while working in public. Laws about in-person canvassing vary from state to state, often putting confrontation of canvassers into a legal gray area between free speech and harassment.

Debbie Tucker, an unpaid canvasser in her 60s, said she was outside a library in central Arkansas last week with another canvasser in her 20s when a group of about six protesters — men and women — set up a table a few feet from them. One man wore a body camera and harassed anyone who approached the canvassers’ table, according to Tucker.

Tucker wonders how many people may have wanted to sign their petition but didn’t out of fear for their safety.

“I wasn’t scared as much as I was mad,” Tucker said about the incident. “Maybe in a good way. It was a good thing that happened, because now I’m mad, and I’m doubled down, and more likely to get out there.”

Eventually, Tucker called her husband for reinforcement. His presence immediately de-escalated tensions with the man with the body camera.

“That makes me mad,” Tucker said. “I hate to call on him … but these people, this man, were just relentless. But they back off when there’s a man. That’s sad. But we as women, we know how that is.”

That sentiment was shared by Sinclair, who also noticed a level of vitriol by men that was aimed at her and other women canvassers. Most of the people organizing in support of the ballot measure in Arkansas are women.

“The protesters like to target the women. … They like to target the women when they’re alone,” she added. “They want us to be scared. And the main thing for me is that it doesn’t scare me.”

Mary Lowe, a 73-year-old unpaid canvasser based in northwest Arkansas, said she’s contending with a lack of awareness about the ballot measure and finding public spaces to gather signatures in a conservative area. Harassment is posing an additional challenge.

On two separate occasions, she said, a young man disrupted her tabling and signature collecting at the University of Arkansas and wouldn’t leave until campus security was called. A third time, a different young man did the same.

“It sort of annoys me because I think, are these kids not taught manners?” she said. “I’m their grandmother’s age. Why are they trying to tell me what the world’s like?”

In another instance, Lowe said she was gathering signatures in a downtown area when an anti-abortion man started engaging with her in a hostile manner. Lowe tried to de-escalate the situation by packing up her materials and leaving for the day, but the man followed her to two separate restaurants.

Lowe, not wanting to return to her car, said the man followed her another 30 minutes, still accosting her, until she got to a city administration building where she was able to flag down a firefighter, who gave her the phone number for the police department.

“I wasn’t frightened, I was more pissed off,” Lowe recalled. “But you never know with these people. … I think they’re on this vigilante justice thing and I don’t think they like women, either.”

Jenni, another unpaid canvasser who requested that her last name not be used out of fear for the safety of her family, said she hid recently behind a trailer parked near a town square farmers’ market to lose track of a group of protesters. She has gone so far as to bring an umbrella to events so she can protect the faces of people who sign their names to the petition.

“I’ve been called a murderer. I have had men with children come up to me and say, ‘This lady likes to murder babies. Do you want to murder babies?’ And the looks on these children’s faces, it’s heartbreaking, because they don’t understand what we’re doing,” she said.

While Lowe strongly supports the ballot measure and citizen-led initiatives, she’s looking forward to the signature drive’s conclusion in the next few weeks.

“If you talk to most volunteers, it’s probably taken over a lot of their mental capacity and waking lives over the last few months,” she said.

Diaz with Arkansans for Limited Government said the group has between 250 and 300 volunteers who are rotating shifts to collect signatures for the petition over the next few weeks. She said some have a private group chat where they check in and share experiences in real time.

Lowe said it is highly gratifying to work with the other volunteers. Out in the field, many people thank Lowe for her work and share their abortion stories.

“That’s the best thing about it, that camaraderie. And you really do get a high feeling when you go out and get 120 signatures in an afternoon,” she said. “I mean, that is such a high.”

Tucker, who had been worried for some time that she would face protesters, said the experience at the library pushed her to face her fears.

“They got me out of my being afraid, so I guess that was a good thing,” she said.

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