The Dirty Tricks the GOP Is Using to Keep Abortion Off the Ballot in 2024

Tiffany Campbell used to describe herself as a “hardcore, church-going Republican.” That changed back in 2006, when she was still running an in-home daycare in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and learned she was pregnant with twins. The prognosis was dire: one twin’s heart was pumping blood for both of them and, without intervention, neither would survive. She has a healthy 16-year-old son today because she was able to obtain an abortion. After that experience, she threw herself into politics; today she is working full-time for the campaign to restore pre-Dobbs abortion protections in South Dakota.

If the South Dakota measure makes it to the ballot, it has a good shot at passing. Since the Supreme Court struck down Roe in June of 2022, the reproductive rights movement has gone seven for seven at the ballot box, defeating efforts to restrict abortion in states like Kansas, Kentucky, and Montana, and enshrining protections in swing states like Michigan and Ohio. It’s hardly a wonder why Republicans are emptying their bag of dirty tricks to make sure it doesn’t work: inventing astronomical “costs,” conspiring with anti-abortion groups to change the ballot language, and fighting to ban petition collectors from public spaces, among other strategies.

In South Dakota, anti-abortion activists, with assists from GOP officials, have tried out a variety of  tactics in recent months. Activists have been harassed, videotaped and repeatedly called the police on petition collectors, while local officials have sought to pass ordinances banning them from collecting signatures in public places. Most recently, the attorney general warned in a letter that he was in possession of “video and photographic evidence” that could allow opponents to challenge the signatures that have been collected so far.

“The organized opposition is more aggressive than I’ve encountered in any of these fights in the past,” says Adam Weiland, who has worked on various ballot measures in the state for years. “It’s the first time I’ve ever encountered people who don’t even want you to get on the ballot and let the voters vote. That’s the whole focus of their campaign.”

The same stories are playing out in battleground states and Republican-controlled states around the country. To get on the ballot in Arizona — a critical swing state in 2024 — canvassers must collect at least 370,000 valid signatures. But the rules are strict: if a single signature on a page of 15 is invalid, the entire page is thrown out. Anti-abortion activists have taken advantage of the rules to try to counteract the pro-choice organizers collection efforts. Amy Fitch-Heacock with Arizonans for Reproductive Freedom says she has witnessed protesters “take the petition, pretend that they are signing, but they will use false information: a fake name, fake address, or they will scribble and go outside of the lines” — setting canvassers back 15 signatures at a time.

In Florida, Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody has petitioned the state Supreme Court — now stacked with ultra-conservative DeSantis appointees — to stop the Florida Right to Reproductive Freedom Initiative from moving forward. “They basically made very disingenuous legal arguments,” Hélène Barthélemy, staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida, says of the attorney general’s office. But because of the makeup of the court, it’s possible that their argument could persuade the court. “Judges do what they want to do in every single circumstance. So we will see, but we’re as prepared as possible.”

It’s clear why Republicans would want to block voters from having their say: a poll released this week found 62 percent of Floridians would support the proposed constitutional amendment — enough to meet Florida’s unusually high 60 percent threshold to amend the constitution.

In Missouri, Republican officials have dived deep into the weeds to fight the 2024 ballot measure at every procedural step. Attorney General Andrew Bailey refused to sign off on the state auditor’s estimate of how much the proposed amendment would cost taxpayers. The auditor cited an estimate that indicated the measure could cost $51,000; Bailey asserted, wildly, the cost could be closer to $51 billion. He refused to approve the fiscal note, forcing advocates to go to court, and curtailing the period in which they could collect signatures.

That wasn’t the end of the shenanigans. After a judge twice ruled against the attorney general, Missouri’s Secretary of State, Jay Ashcroft, had a chance to propose language to appear on the ballot. His version asked voters if they favor allowing “dangerous and unregulated abortions until live birth.” (A state appeals court rejected that language, and the Missouri Supreme Court declined to hear Ashcroft’s appeal.) “The ballot initiative process in Missouri has been around for over 100 years,” says Tori Schafer with the ACLU of Missouri, which helped defeat both efforts in court. “It’s never had this issue before.”

The Republican resistance to ballot measures is new. Back when Democrats controlled a majority of state houses around the country, the GOP loved direct democracy, and spearheaded initiatives to restrict collective bargaining, enact voter ID laws, and reject health insurance mandates. That changed after the seismic 2010 midterm elections that helped install GOP majorities in legislatures and governor’s mansions ahead of a once-a-decade redistricting process. Ever since, data shows Republicans have aggressively attacked the citizen-led initiative process — particularly in states where the party holds a trifecta.

South Dakota may be a rock-ribbed Republican stronghold, but when it comes to direct democracy, voters have proven open-minded. In the last eight years, they have passed campaign finance reform, banned payday lending, legalized medical and recreational weed, and expanded Medicaid. And, on two separate occasions — first in 2006, then again in 2008 — South Dakotans have defeated abortion bans at the ballot box.

South Dakota is one of at least a dozen states where efforts to put abortion on the ballot in 2024 are in various stages of development. After a string of victories, Democrats are increasingly optimistic about the power of such measures not just to fortify access, but to drive voter turnout in a presidential election in which Democrats could really use the help.

It’s a tactic that Republicans used to their advantage in 2004, when they worked to place measures that would ban same-sex marriage on the ballot in hopes of luring conservative voters to the polls to help re-elect George W. Bush. Opposition to abortion combined, undoubtedly, with fears about the impact those ballot measures could have on the presidential race, has anti-abortion activists and their allies in government, are working furiously to prevent the proposed constitutional amendment from ever appearing before voters in the first place.

A year out from the election, it remains to be seen which tactics will be successful. In Nevada, an anti-abortion group recently convinced a Republican judge that a ballot measure that would establish the right to reproductive freedom didn’t meet the state’s standard. “Voters should be aware that anti-abortion advocates still have plenty of state government allies who are willing to help them undermine reproductive freedom,” Lindsey Harmon, president of Nevadans for Reproductive Freedom, declared in response. “We will not let one judge’s misguided ruling deter us.” On Monday, the group appealed the ruling.

The landscape, meanwhile, is dramatically different in Democrat-controlled states. In Maryland, advocates have experienced virtually no resistance whatsoever, and say they are aware of no organized opposition. “We’re expecting a disinformation campaign,” says Joanne Antoine, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. “But outside of that we’re not hearing anything at all.”

It’s a similar story in Colorado, where a measure that would prohibit the government from denying or impeding the right to an abortion is poised to go before voters next year, a competing ballot measure that would have banned abortion in the state failed to pass procedural hurdles. “We have not really experienced any direct pushback,” says Dusti Gurule, CEO of Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights. ”Our community supports not only [keeping abortion legal], but expanding access for those who need it. So, we’re in a really good place, and frankly, really excited to get the signatures and get on the ballot.”

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