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Volunteers gather signatures to put abortion rights on the ballot in Missouri, but face challenges

A photo of Chimene Schwach petitioning during the True/False Film Fest.
Meghan Lee
Chimene Schwach gathers signatures on Saturday, March 2, in Columbia, for an initiative petition that would put abortion on the ballot in Missouri. The coalition Missourians for Constitutional Freedom is in charge of the initiative.

Chimene Schwach had an abortion in her early twenties.

She believes other women in Missouri should have the same choice.

That’s why she’s volunteering to collect signatures for a petition to restore reproductive freedoms in Missouri.

“The decision is no longer between me and my doctor on what to do with my reproductive health care,” Schwach said. “But it's between the legislature and my uterus. And that's ridiculous.”

The petition, which is organized by Missourians for Constitutional Freedom, is in its final month. With a quota of nearly 172,000 signatures, the coalition is relying heavily on volunteers to reach its goal.

Schwach is joined by hundreds of volunteers who are still collecting signatures. If the volunteers gather enough signatures before May 5, they could put a constitutional amendment to end Missouri’s abortion ban on the ballot, likely in November.

Schwach said all Missourians should sign, regardless of their beliefs about reproductive freedom.

Chimene Schwach holds a clipboard with signature sheets for the abortion initiative petition.
Meghan Lee
Chimene Schwach holds a clipboard with signature sheets for the abortion initiative petition on Saturday, March 2, 2024 in Columbia. The initiative petition legalizing abortion must get signatures from 8% of legal voters in Missouri.

“I feel like this is an issue for all of us for so many different reasons,” Schwach said. “And so when people tell me they have no interest, it goes against all of my better judgment not to engage them in conversation about why they believe this has no bearing on their life.”

If the petition succeeds – and it likely will – it won’t immediately renew reproductive rights in the state, but rather send the matter to a vote in the fall, when all Missourians will have the option to vote yes or no.

The initiative petition process

Before the signature collection process begins, a Missouri citizen must file their initiative petition with the Secretary of State office, which certifies the amendment and writes summary language for the ballot.

The process is relatively straightforward and should leave plenty of time for signature collection, said Tori Schafer, an attorney for the ACLU of Missouri who spoke on behalf of Missourians for Constitutional Freedom.

But Schafer said their approval process experienced an unnecessarily long delay because some Missouri legislators don’t approve of the petition.

The coalition took its original ballot summary to court, arguing for more fair language. The Secretary of State also took more than 100 days to certify the amendment — a process which normally takes 54 days.

“That wasn’t because anything was wrong with our petition,” Schafer said. “It’s because they don’t like it. And so it’s another delay tactic to eat up our time to collect signatures.”

As a result, the coalition had a shorter timeline than most campaigns.

But Missourians for Constitutional Freedom still said it is on track to meet its goal, having collected nearly all of its $5 million fundraising goal by April 1.

“We’ve had literally thousands of volunteers come out to collect signatures with us, to show their support. Both financially, and of course, (with) in-person boots-on-the-ground work,” Schafer said. “So we’re excited. We’re energized.”

A ‘tool’ of direct democracy

Two bills that would make it harder to amend the state constitution through the initiative petition process recently passed in the Missouri House.

The Senate is expected to put up a fight, but if either of the bills pass, the threshold to put a petition on the ballot would be much higher.

One of the bills, HJR 86, would require signatures from 8% of voters in all the state’s eight congressional districts. Currently, the petitioners must collect 8% from only five districts.

Another bill, SJR 74, would require constitutional amendments to pass by both a simple majority statewide and a majority in each congressional district.

Chimene Schwach walks down a sidewalk in downtown Columbia with a petition during the True/False Film Fest.
Meghan Lee
Chimene Schwach gathered signatures for petitions during the True/False Film Fest in February.

President of the Missouri League of Women Voters Marilyn McLeod said initiative petitions are a tool of direct democracy that voters pursue when they’ve exhausted all other avenues.

“Sometimes the time has come,” said McLeod. “And if the legislature is not listening and doesn't want to proceed … (with) something that the public wants, that's when this is a wonderful asset that we have.”

She said Missourians from both sides of the aisle have historically used initiative petitions, and making it harder to pursue them would be detrimental to all Missourians, regardless of political party.

“Our position is to let it go to a vote of the people and see what they say,” said McLeod. “Don't decide for the public the outcome by stopping this.”

More than 200 ballot measures have been proposed in the last hundred years, but only 70 have been initiative petitions, McLeod said. Out of those, only 29 have passed, like one that legalized recreational marijuana in 2022.

“People do not resort to a complicated process that takes thousands of hours to gather signatures. They don't do that lightly. They do it because their voices aren't being heard in the General Assembly, and so they take to trying to get something done.”

Lilley Halloran is majoring in journalism and constitutional democracy at the University of Missouri, with minors in political science and history. She is a reporter for KBIA, and has previously completed two internships with St. Louis Public Radio.
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