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Missouri abortion-rights initiatives face a ‘torturous’ road to the 2024 ballot. Here's what to know

Dylan Lysen
Kansas News Service

Two coalitions are hoping to put abortion on the 2024 ballot in Missouri, where virtually all abortions are illegal. The issue has proven to be a big winner in numerous states, but both groups face the same question: Is there enough time and money to get their proposed amendments off the ground?

Pulling off a successful ballot initiative campaign in Missouri is an undertaking so difficult that one Democratic political consultant compares it to skiing the slalom at the Olympics.

There is a laundry list of deadlines to meet, an army of signature gatherers to hire, a host of legal battles to fight — all with a price tag that can quickly cost millions.

“You’re going downhill at a very fast rate of speed,” said Jack Cardetti, who helped run a number of successful initiative petition campaigns in recent years. “You have to make decisions very quickly. And no matter how well you’re seeing, if you miss a single gate, you’re out, you’re disqualified.”

Two coalitions are hoping to put abortion on the 2024 ballot in Missouri, where virtually all abortions are illegal. The issue has proven to be a big winner on the ballot in numerous states this year, giving supporters hope Missouri will be next.

But both groups face the same question: Is there enough time and money to get their initiatives off the ground?

The initiative petitions

In mid-November, Jamie Corley, a longtime GOP Congressional staffer, launched a campaign effort for an initiative petition that would add rape and incest exceptions to Missouri’s abortion ban and legalize the procedure up to 12 weeks.

Volunteers are already in the field collecting signatures, Corley said last week. She plans to start recruiting paid signature gatherers before the end of the year.

The path forward for the other coalition, called Missourians for Constitutional Freedom, is less certain. The group filed 11 initiative petitions earlier this year seeking to amend Missouri’s constitution to overturn the state’s abortion ban with limited room for lawmakers to regulate the procedure after viability.

Exactly which organizations are involved in Missourians for Constitutional Freedom is unclear. The only entity publicly connected to the campaign at the moment is the ACLU of Missouri, which represented the coalition in its court fight with Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft over ballot summaries.

The Missouri ACLU’s deputy director for policy and campaigns, Tori Schafer, said in an emailed statement that the coalition “wants to restore access in a meaningful way, and in order to do that MCF needs to win at the ballot box and have a huge amount of support and resources to do it.”

A crowd of hundreds gather beneath trees in a park. They are carrying signs and listening to speakers.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Hundreds crammed into Mill Creek Park in June 2022 to listen to protest the Supreme Court's decision to dismantle Roe v. Wade.

Just before Thanksgiving,the coalition won its legal battle with Ashcroft, allowing it to move ahead with signature gathering — though a decision still hasn’t been made about which of the 11 proposals to move forward. Most would limit lawmakers’ ability to regulate the procedure after viability.

“Any campaign that would move forward is left to contend with a myriad of challenges, including a severely constricted timeline,” said Mallory Schwarz, executive director of Abortion Action Missouri, formerly known as Pro Choice Missouri. “At the same time there is incredible opportunity and there’s hope here because we continue to see abortion rights and access remain a top priority for voters across the country.”

Schwarz, who declined to comment on whether her organization is part of Missourians for Constitutional Freedom, believes an abortion ballot measure that provides “true abortion access” would be the most expensive initiative petition campaign Missouri has ever seen.

“I am hopeful that something moves forward,” Schwarz said. “In all the years that I’ve been working as an abortion rights advocate, I’ve never seen the level of enthusiasm and anger and commitment to fighting for what Missourians deserve.”

The ‘torturous’ initiative petition process

Since the pandemic, the only initiative petition to successfully land on the ballot was marijuana legalization, Cardetti said. In that time, hundreds of other attempts to amend the constitution failed to get off the ground.

Missouri law requires petitioners hoping to amend the state constitution through the statewide ballot to collect more than 171,000 signatures from registered Missouri voters by May, but Cardetti said realistically, campaigns should be gathering at least 130,000 more to compensate for signatures that ultimately won’t be valid.

He said this “daunting task” also requires that signatures be collected in six of Missouri’s eight congressional districts, an endeavor he said typically costs several million dollars.

In the past five years, Cardetti has worked on three successful ballot initiatives in Missouri, including Medicaid expansion and marijuana legalization. He said the time and cost of getting signatures is mammoth.

Cardetti is not involved with any of the abortion initiative petitions.

“Even if you have enough voters out there willing to sign the petition to get it on the ballot, you have to physically have people out there collecting those signatures each and every day, seven days a week,” Cardetti said.

John Hancock, a longtime Republican consultant and former state lawmaker, points to a labor shortage since the pandemic and the increasing costs of recruiting paid signature gatherers as a major hurdle for any initiative petition campaign. He is not involved in the abortion initiative petitions.

“It’s just become a more torturous process,” Hancock said.

In this Nov. 7, 2017, photo, Republican Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft speaks in Valley Park, Mo.
Jeff Roberson
Associated Press
In this Nov. 7, 2017, photo, Republican Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft speaks in Valley Park, Missouri.

The cost of a successful campaign

Last year in Michigan, an abortion-rights coalition spent more than $30 millionon a ballot initiative campaign that voters ultimately backed.

This year in Ohio, in October alone, nearly $29 million was donated to the campaign supporting a ballot measure to enshrine abortion rights in that state’s constitution. The measure ultimately won.

Cardetti said high dollar donations can be a sign of success as a campaign progresses.

Corley’s PAC, called the Missouri Women and Family Research Fund, won’t file its first quarterly report with the state ethics commission until January and has yet to report any large donations that would need to be immediately disclosed.

While Missourians for Constitutional Freedom has not officially launched a campaign yet, so far it has raised just shy of $13,500 – mostly from in-kind donations from the ACLU of Missouri to cover the costs of legal representation.

As of Oct. 1, the group reported having only $28 cash on hand and has reported no large donations since.

Cardetti doesn’t recommend waiting much past January to get a campaign off the ground, especially one that requires significant financial backing.

The PAC supporting recreational marijuana legalization in 2022 launched in January and only had five months to collect signatures, Cardetti said, but it went into the campaign with a warchest of more than $1.1 million.

In total, the cannabis legalization effort cost more than $9.7 million.

“If you don’t see those type of contributions coming in, or those types of expenditures going out, it’s a pretty good indication that it’s not an effort that’s going to be successful,” he said.

Better Elections, which sought to place a ranked-choice voting initiative on the 2022 ballot, fell short of the total signatures needed despite raising millions of dollars.

In January 2022, Better Elections had nearly $930,000 cash on hand and had raised $2.4 million. By May, the group raised $6.8 million.

Another initiative petition seeking to make the 2024 ballot is the Jobs with Justice Ballot Fund. As of its October quarterly report, the group had $16,500 cash on hand to support an initiative that would increase minimum wage and require employers offer paid sick leave.

Since the October quarterly report, the PAC set up to support the minimum wage and paid sick leave initiative — called Missourians for Healthy Families and Fair Wages — has raised more than $500,000 in large contributions. That includes $41,000 from Abortion Action Missouri.

Planned Parenthood has not taken a public position on any of the abortion initiative petitions, but continues to advocate for “meaningful access.”

Vanessa Wellbery, vice president of policy and advocacy at Advocates of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis region and Southwest Missouri, said they are still considering what investment and tactics would help build legal and unimpeded access to abortion, which she said will be a costly endeavor.

“We are prepared, even if it takes many years, to hold those anti-abortion extremists accountable to the harm that they have done to Missourians,” Wellbery said. “Particularly the folks who face the most barriers to care and who are the most marginalized.”

Cardetti said if both coalitions are ultimately successful in getting abortion on the ballot next year, it could be “less than ideal” for the campaigns, “but it’s not fatal.”

“What you worry about though, is there’s some confusion and voters just sort of throw up their hands and say, ‘I don’t know. Let’s just vote both of these down and they’ll come back with a better one,’” he said. “That’s the situation you want to avoid.”

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent.

Anna Spoerre covers reproductive health care for The Missouri Independent. A graduate of Southern Illinois University, she most recently worked at the Kansas City Star where she focused on storytelling that put people at the center of wider issues. Before that she was a courts reporter for the Des Moines Register.
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