Legislative efforts in Missouri and Mississippi are attempting to prevent voters from having a say over abortion rights, building on anti-abortion strategies seen in other states, including last year in Ohio.
Democrats and abortion rights advocates say the efforts are evidence that Republican lawmakers and abortion opponents are trying to undermine democratic processes meant to give voters a direct role in forming state laws.
“They are afraid of people and their voices, so their response is to keep their voices from being heard,” said Laurie Bertram Roberts, executive director of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund. “There’s nothing democratic about that, and it’s the same plan we’ve seen in Ohio and all these other states, over and over again.”
Since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to abortion in 2022, voters in seven states have protected abortion rights or defeated attempts to restrict them in statewide votes. Democrats have pledged to make the issue a central campaign issue this year in every election.
A proposal passed Wednesday by the Mississippi House of Representatives would prohibit residents from putting abortion initiatives on the state ballot. Mississippi has one of the strictest abortion restrictions in the country, and the procedure is prohibited except to save the woman’s life or in cases of rape or incest.
In response to the bill, Democratic Rep. Cheikh Taylor said direct democracy “should not include terms and conditions.”
“Don’t let anyone tell you this is just about abortion,” Taylor said. “This is a Republican Party that believes it knows better than you what is best for you. It’s about control. So much for freedom and limited government.”
The resolution is an attempt to revive a ballot initiative process in Mississippi, which has been without one since 2021, when the state Supreme Court ruled that the process was invalid because it required people to collect signatures from the five former districts of the United States House of Representatives in the state. Mississippi was reduced to four districts after the 2000 census, but the initiative’s language was never updated.
Republican Rep. Fred Shanks said House Republicans would not have passed the resolution, which will soon head to the Senate, without the abortion exemption. Some House Republicans said voters should not be allowed to vote on changing abortion laws because Mississippi originated the legal case that overturned Roe v. Wade.
“It took 50 years … to overturn Roe v. Wade,” said Mississippi House Speaker Jason White, a Republican. “We weren’t going to let people coming from out of state throw it out the window, spend $50 million and run an initiative.”
But Mississippi Democrats and abortion access organizations criticized the exemption as limiting the voice of the people.
“This is an extremely undemocratic way to harm access to reproductive health care,” said Sofia Tomov, operations coordinator for Access Reproductive Care Southeast, a member of the Mississippi Abortion Access Coalition. “It’s infringing on people’s ability to participate in the democratic process.”
In Missouri, one of several states where an abortion rights initiative could go before voters in the fall, a plan backed by anti-abortion groups would require initiatives to win a majority of votes in five of the state’s eight congressional districts, plus a simple majority at the state level.
The proposal comes days after an abortion rights campaign in Missouri launched its ballot effort with the goal of enshrining abortion rights in the state constitution. Missouri abortion rights groups have also criticized Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, saying he is trying to thwart the initiative by manipulating the measure’s vote summary. A Missouri appeals court recently found that the summaries were politically partisan and misleading.
Asked during a recent committee hearing whether the GOP proposal was an attempt to get rid of direct democracy, Republican state Rep. Ed Lewis said: “I think our founding fathers were as afraid of direct democracy as we should be. we. That’s why they created a republic.”
Sam Lee, a lobbyist for Campaign Life Missouri, testified Tuesday about the need for provisions like this to ensure “minority rights are not trampled.”
“The concern of our founders, and the concern of many people over decades and years, is to avoid a tyranny of the majority,” he said.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo said controlling who can vote and on what issues has been “the top priority of the Republican Party for the last 20 years.”
“This is how democracies die,” he said in an interview. “We are seeing it in real time. “This is the scariest moment I have ever seen in my life.”
Democratic Rep. Joe Adams criticized the plan in part, alleging that the state’s congressional and legislative districts are gerrymandered to favor Republicans. That would make it nearly impossible for an abortion measure to pass under the proposed legislation.
Attempts to keep abortion measures off the ballots in Missouri and Mississippi follow a similar plan in other states to target the ballot initiative process, a form of direct democracy available to voters in only about half of the states. .
Florida’s Republican attorney general has asked the state Supreme Court to keep an abortion rights amendment proposal off the ballot, as a pro-choice coalition reached the required number of signatures this month to qualify her for the 2024 ballot.
In Nevada, a judge on Tuesday approved an abortion rights ballot measure petition as eligible for signature collection, rejecting a legal challenge by anti-abortion groups trying to prevent the issue from going before voters.
Abortion rights advocates in Ohio have said that last year’s state vote to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution was as much about abortion as it was about a referendum on democracy itself. They said Republicans attempted to obstruct the democratic process before the vote and attempted to ignore the will of voters after the amendment was passed.
Ohio Republicans called a special election in August to try to raise the threshold for passing future constitutional amendments from a simple majority to 60%. That effort was defeated at the polls and was widely seen as an attempt to undermine the abortion amendment.
After Ohio voters approved abortion protections last year, Republican lawmakers vowed to prevent the amendment from repealing the state’s restrictions. Some proposed preventing Ohio courts from interpreting any cases related to the amendment.
“It wasn’t just about abortion,” Deirdre Schifeling, political and advocacy director of the ACLU, said last fall after the Ohio amendment passed. “It’s about: ‘Will the majority be heard?’
Associated Press writers Summer Ballentine in Jefferson City, Missouri, and Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Mississippi, contributed to this report.
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