Arkansas Secretary of State rejects proposed abortion amendment

Thurston cites law requiring affidavit identifying paid canvassers by name; ballot question committee calls rejection “ridiculous” attempt to “silence” supporters
 Supporters of the Arkansas Abortion Amendment cheer in the Capitol lobby on Friday, July 5, 2024 as movers deliver petitions to put the amendment on the November ballot. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

This story was updated July 10, 2024, at 6:15 p.m. with details about past rejected ballot measures and comments from anti-abortion groups.

This story was updated again July 10, 2024, at 9:03 p.m. with comments from Arkansans for Limited Government.

Supporters of a proposed Arkansas ballot to create a limited right to abortion said Wednesday that they will challenge Arkansas Secretary of State John Thurston’s rejection of their submission of more than 101,000 signatures.

The group that submitted the petitions Friday did not submit an affidavit identifying paid canvassers by name, as required by state law, Thurston wrote in a Wednesday letter to Lauren Cowles, executive director of Arkansans for Limited Government, the ballot question committee supporting the proposed constitutional amendment.

State law also requires ballot question committees to provide “a copy of the most recent edition of the Secretary of State’s initiatives and referenda handbook to each paid canvasser” and to explain to canvassers the legal requirements for soliciting signatures before canvassing begins.

AFLG did not fulfill these requirements while the sponsors of other proposed ballot measures did, Thurston wrote.

Failure to comply with these requirements invalidates the 14,143 signatures collected by paid canvassers, bringing the total number of facially valid signatures down from 101,525 to 87,382, Thurston wrote. Proposed constitutional amendments need 90,704 signatures from at least 50 counties to qualify for the statewide ballot.

The ballot question committee “is alarmed and outraged” by Thurston’s “ridiculous disqualification attempt,” AFLG said in a statement Wednesday night, adding that the Arkansas government “seeks to silence” supporters of abortion access.

“We worked with the Secretary of State’s office during every step of the process to ensure that we followed all rules and regulations,” AFLG said in the statement.

“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 Arkansas Abortion Amendment would not allow government entities to “prohibit, penalize, delay or restrict abortion services within 18 weeks of fertilization.” The proposal would also permit abortion services in cases of rape, incest, a fatal fetal anomaly or to “protect the pregnant female’s life or physical health,” and it would nullify any of the state’s existing “provisions of the Constitution, statutes and common law” that conflict with it.

Abortion has been illegal in Arkansas, except to save the pregnant person’s life, since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022.

The deadline to submit signatures for ballot measures was Friday at 5 p.m. Sponsors can be allowed more time to submit additional signatures if the initial submission contains valid signatures from registered voters equal to at least 75% of the overall required number of signatures and 75% of the required number from at least 50 counties, Secretary of State spokesman Chris Powell said.

However, the proposed abortion amendment will not qualify for this extra time because the number of facially valid signatures did not meet the threshold of 90,704, so the remaining signatures are not being counted and validated, Powell said.

Ballot question committees have the option of appealing to the Arkansas Supreme Court to try to get a rejected measure on the ballot. In 2020, the court removed three proposed measures from the November ballot and a fourth was voluntarily withdrawn after supporters’ affidavits did not clarify that canvassers had passed background checks as required by law, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.

David Couch, an attorney who worked on the 2020 measures, said Thurston’s decision about the abortion amendment was “a very analogous argument.”

Reactions

The Democratic Party of Arkansas said on X that its members “are in this fight for the long haul.”

“We believe in health care and education that let every woman determine when and if parenthood is right for her,” the party wrote.

Republican elected officials praised Thurston’s rejection of the amendment on X Wednesday.

“Today the far left pro-abortion crowd in Arkansas showed they are both immoral and incompetent,” Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders wrote.

Attorney General Tim Griffin called the required affidavit “simple and straightforward.”

“Failure to follow such a basic requirement is inexcusable: the #abortion advocates have no one to blame but themselves,” he wrote.

AFLG was about 10,000 signatures shy of the minimum at the start of last week, but made a strong effort to gather last-minute signatures, including on Independence Day when an email claiming to be from the organization caused confusion by stating no more signatures were needed. AFLG quickly alerted supporters that the misleading email was not from them and encouraged people to continue signing petitions.

Supporters of the Arkansas Abortion Amendment also faced a “Decline to Sign” effort encouraging voters not to sign petitions for the amendment. The effort was led by anti-abortion groups Arkansas Right to Life and the Family Council, the latter of which posted on its website a list of 79 people paid by AFLG to collect signatures.

AFLG called the post attempted intimidation; the Family Council has since removed the list from the post but has kept it publicly available on its political action committee website. Acquiring and publishing the list is legal under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

“The Secretary of State has made the right decision by disqualifying these petitions that did not comply with the law,” Family Council Action Committee Executive Director Jerry Cox said in a statement. “We appreciate the Secretary of State’s diligence in reviewing these petitions and commitment to upholding state law.”

The Family Council’s publication of the list in June is proof that AFLG provided the Secretary of State’s office with the required list of paid canvassers, AFLG said in its statement.

“Asserting now that we didn’t provide required documentation regarding paid canvassers is absurd and demonstrably, undeniably incorrect,” the statement reads. “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.”

A South Dakota anti-abortion group is challenging a proposed abortion-rights ballot measure in federal court, alleging that supporters did not follow state canvassing laws. On Monday, a federal judge declined to stop the lawsuit.

Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America mentioned the South Dakota litigation in a statement Wednesday afternoon issued in light of Thurston’s decision.

“The abortion lobby is trying to deceive voters in red states across our nation into voting for amendments that enshrine all-trimester abortion, remove parental rights and eviscerate women’s health protections this year,” Southern Regional Director Caitlin Connors said in the statement. “As they attempt to cut corners in the process in the pro-life state of Arkansas, Secretary of State John Thurston has taken a stand to ensure that pro-abortion activists must follow the same state laws that apply to every other ballot campaign.”

This story first appeared in Arkansas Advocate and is being republished through a Creative Commons License. See the original story here. Arkansas Advocate is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arkansas Advocate maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sonny Albarado for questions: [email protected]. Follow Arkansas Advocate on Facebook and Twitter.