COLUMBIA, MISSOURI - Abortion-rights advocates on Thursday sued Missouri's top election official, alleging his actions and state laws denied them the right to put one of the nation's most restrictive abortion laws to a public vote.
No Bans on Choice Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union sought to put the law on the 2020 ballot in hopes that voters would overturn it. The measure bans abortions at or after eight weeks of pregnancy, with exceptions for medical emergencies but not for rape or incest.
But they ran out of time to gather enough signatures to put the law on hold pending a public vote. It's slated to take effect Aug. 28.
Attorneys for those who sued put the blame on Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft. They claim Ashcroft dragged his feet in processing the referendum petition, leaving them with only two weeks to gather 100,000 signatures.
ACLU of Missouri Acting Director Tony Rothert said at this point, there's nothing to do to salvage the referendum effort. Instead, critics of the law want a Cole County judge to rule that petitioners should be allowed to collect signatures earlier in the referendum process, possibly preventing a similar issue from happening again.
"We want to make sure that Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft and any future politician is never able to deny Missourians the right to put laws like this abortion ban to a vote," No Bans on Choice Treasurer Robin Utz said.
A spokesman for the Attorney General's Office, which defends state laws against court challenges, said state attorneys are currently reviewing the lawsuit.
Ashcroft spokeswoman Maura Browning didn't immediately comment on the lawsuit, saying the office needs to read it first. But she's previously said the Secretary of State's Office "followed the same process we use for every initiative petition and referendum, and has taken an amount of time comparable to any other petition or referendum."
Critics point out that Ashcroft on June 6 rejected the ACLU's petition, along with a similar petition backed by wealthy Republican donor David Humphreys, another critic of the law.
He had cited a provision in the Missouri Constitution that prohibits referendums on legislation that has already taken effect. Although most of the law is set to take effect Aug. 28, the Republican-led Legislature voted to make a section of the bill that changed parental consent laws for minors seeking abortions take effect immediately.
But the ACLU sued against Ashcroft's decision, and ultimately won.
Browning has said the ACLU could have saved time by filing the petition 11 days earlier, after the Legislature passed the bill. The ACLU waited until Republican Gov. Mike Parson signed it May 24.
"It's now been adjudicated that he broke the law," Acting ACLU of Missouri Director Tony Rothert said of Ashcroft's action, "and he's trying to weasel out of responsibility for that."
In the lawsuit, attorneys for those who sued also alleged that Missouri laws impede citizens' right to referendum. That's because for referendums, state law prohibits petitioners from collecting signatures until a ballot title is certified.
"State officials can prevent a referendum on a favored piece of legislation simply by using all of their statutorily allotted time to complete their administrative tasks and thereby delaying certification of a ballot title for 51 days after a proposed referendum petition is submitted," the lawsuit alleged.
Karisa Gilman-Hernandez told reporters Thursday that she and thousands of other volunteers for No Bans on Choice spent money on training to collect voter signatures and had planned to be ready at a moment's notice to begin the effort.
NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri Executive Director Mallory Schwarz said abortion-rights advocates are now redirecting resources toward registering voters in advance of the 2020 elections. Both Parson and Ashcroft are up for re-election.