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State Officials Try to Reject Arkansas Abortion Ballot Measure on Technicality

Organizers are fighting to keep reproductive rights on the ballot despite interference by the GOP secretary of state.

The Arkansas State Capitol is pictured in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Reproductive rights advocates responded with outrage and vowed to fight after Arkansas’ top election official on Wednesday moved to disqualify a proposed ballot initiative that — if approved by voters — would enshrine abortion access in the state’s constitution.

Arkansans for Limited Government (ALG), the group behind the proposed constitutional amendment, refuted Republican Secretary of State John Thurston’s claim that organizers failed to provide the state with a list of all paid canvassers who worked to gather petition signatures for the ballot measure, along with other required materials.

“We worked with the secretary of state’s office during every step of the process to ensure that we followed all rules and regulations,” ALG said in a statement responding to Thurston’s letter to the group on Wednesday. “At multiple junctures — including on July 5 inside of the Capitol Building — we discussed signature submission requirements with the secretary of state’s staff. In fact, the secretary of state’s office supplied us with the affidavit paperwork, which we used. Until today, we had no reason not to trust that the paperwork they supplied us was correct and complete.”

“The secretary of state, and the public, knows that we provided the state with a list of our paid canvassers and all of the required information associated with their employment,” ALG added. “They know this because the list we provided to the secretary of state was FOIA’d and released by our opposition in an attempt to intimidate our supporters. Asserting now that we didn’t provide required documentation regarding paid canvassers is absurd and demonstrably, undeniably incorrect.”

Thurston claimed in his letter — which was immediately praised by anti-abortion lawmakers — that his staff counted 14,143 signatures gathered by paid canvassers, signatures that the official says should be tossed due to ALG’s supposed failure to provide the state with a list of the canvassers.

If the 14,143 signatures collected by paid canvassers are subtracted from the 101,525 total signatures gathered by organizers, the abortion rights campaign would be left with 87,382 signatures. That’s just over 3,300 short of the number required for a measure to appear on ballots in the GOP-led state, where abortion is almost completely banned.

The proposed constitutional amendment, which would require just a simple-majority vote to pass, states that Arkansas officials “shall not prohibit, penalize, delay, or restrict abortion services within 18 weeks of fertilization” or in the cases of rape, incest, or “fatal fetal anomaly.” Other state ballot initiatives that — unlike Arkansas’ — have received support from national reproductive rights groups would protect abortion access up to 24 weeks.

ALG — whose name, according to The New York Times, represents “a bid to appeal to the state’s libertarians and centrists” — said late Wednesday that “Arkansas law does not empower the secretary of state to make an unfounded legal interpretation, which is what he did today by summarily declaring that we have not completed the steps for qualification.”

“We are owed a period to provide a hard copy of the statement, which has been emailed to their office more than a dozen times, if that is what’s needed,” the group said. “More than 101,000 Arkansans participated in this heroic act of direct democracy and stood up to loudly proclaim their support for access to healthcare. They deserve better than a state government that seeks to silence them.”

“We will fight this ridiculous disqualification attempt with everything we have,” ALG added. “We will not back down.”

Arkansas is one of nearly a dozen states where an abortion rights initiative could be on the ballot in November.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, abortion rights have won every time they’ve been on the ballot directly — even in reliably red states such as Kansas and Kentucky.

That winning streak has intensified right-wing efforts to prevent abortion rights initiatives from making it to the ballot.

The Associated Press reported last month that tactics employed by anti-abortion groups and their GOP allies “include attempts to get signatures removed from initiative petitions, legislative pushes for competing ballot measures that could confuse voters, and monthslong delays caused by lawsuits over ballot initiative language.”

“In South Dakota, lawmakers passed a bill allowing residents to withdraw their signatures on citizen-led petitions. This launched a comprehensive effort by anti-abortion groups to invalidate a proposed abortion rights ballot measure by encouraging endorsers to withdraw signatures,” AP noted. “Meanwhile, opposition groups in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, and Nebraska have tried to create their own ballot amendments to codify existing abortion restrictions, though these efforts failed to gather enough signatures in Florida and Colorado.”

In Arkansas, as The American Prospect’s Gabrielle Gurley wrote Thursday, “canvassers had obtained almost 11,000 more signatures than state law required in 53 counties” even in the face of “verbal threats and doxxing that some of these activists had endured from abortion opponents.”

“The campaign waged by the measure’s opponents had featured all sorts of attempts to intimidate canvassers,” Gurley added. “Opponents of the amendment had used the state’s FOIA laws to find the addresses of the paid signature-gathers (ironically, a concurrent signature-gathering campaign to enshrine FOIA in the state constitution failed). Some canvassers were followed on their routes. One Little Rock police officer told canvassers that an order to move them off a public area where a food distribution was underway came from Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders.”

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