Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft says he is following the law and the duty of his office by rejecting three recent initiative petitions from groups asking to allow the voters of Missouri to decide the abortion question directly.
Ashcroft visited the Franklin County Clerk’s office in Union Wednesday morning to talk about the state’s election processes, meet with the county election staff and County Clerk Tim Baker.
In addition to overseeing elections in the state, Ashcroft’s office is tasked with vetting and verifying initiative petitions from individuals or groups asking a particular issue be placed on a statewide ballot.
The visit came just a day after Ashcroft, a Republican, rejected a third petition to overturn a very restrictive abortion law passed by the state Legislature and signed by Gov. Mike Parson last month.
He explained unlike the first two petitions, which were rejected due to clerical errors, this did not meet criteria set forth by the Missouri Supreme Court in 1952.
“A referendum can’t exclude any portions of a bill,” Ashcroft said. “There are states that do allow it, but I do not believe these referendums meet the general requirements for Missouri.”
Ashcroft explained another restriction for allowing the referendum was a portion of the law, including an “emergency clause, which immediately went into effect when the bill was signed by Parson.
That emergency clause changes the rules on minors receiving abortions and requires a parent or guardian to give written consent before a minor can get an abortion and to first notify the other custodial parent.
The emergency clause maintains enacting the parental consent is vital because of the need to protect the health and safety of women and their children both born and unborn.
Because of the controversy and divisiveness of the abortion issue, lawmakers who sponsored the bill knew it would be challenged in the courts and through the referendum process.
Ashcroft added, a provision in the state constitution prohibits referendums on laws “necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety,” which was the purpose of the emergency clause being added to the bill language and it being effective immediately.
“You can’t do a referendum on a law that has already gone into effect,” Ashcroft said. “It’s never been done in the history. I’m just following what the law says. If the people want to change that law, the people may, but the constitution has never been changed without a vote of the people.”
The majority of the “Heartbeat Bill” will go into effect on Aug. 28, and would ban abortions at the eighth week of a pregnancy except in medical emergencies.
The new Missouri law, which is one of the most restrictive in the nation, has no exceptions for rape and incest and would ban abortions completely in Missouri if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.
In recent years, two major changes in Missouri law have come through the initiative petition process putting issues to a direct vote of the people.
A major referendum overturned Right to Work last year. Right to Work legislation was approved in May 2018 and then overturned in August 2018.
A second referendum, Clean Missouri, which was designed to tighten ethics standards for state lawmakers and will play a role in redrawing legislative districts, was passed last year by a direct vote of the people.
Despite the referendum, state lawmakers passed rules to change the details of Clean Missouri early in the 2019 session.
Ashcroft said although his personal beliefs may not align with the requests to essentially overturn the recent abortion restrictions, he is adamant the process is done objectively and follows the law.
“I’ve had to approve other petitions I wasn’t in favor of,” Aschcroft said. “It’s the job of this office to listen to the people and what they want.”
He added he would like to see some changes to the initiative petition process to assure only serious groups submit requests to his office.
“We’ve had some people file 60 or 70 petitions in a year with no intention of getting the required signatures,” Ashcroft said. “It’s a waste of time.”
Many groups seeking voter referendums also seek to put their issues on the ballot in elections when voter turnout will be lower.
He gave an example of an election where statewide voter turnout was only 30 percent. Since only a simple majority is currently needed to pass a referendum, essentially 16 percent of the residents could change the constitution for the other 84 percent.
“I’d like to see the approval threshold raised to two-thirds for passage,” Ashcroft said. “Our constitution was designed to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority.”