Abortion rights advocates test a winning strategy in Arkansas

In states like California, Ohio, and Michigan, abortion rights advocates have proven unbeatable in using ballot measures to ensure constitutional access to the procedure.

But their approach is about to face perhaps its toughest test yet in Arkansas, a state with a near-total abortion ban and where conservative and evangelical values ​​are deeply ingrained. A victory here could underscore how chaotic the politics of abortion have become since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade two years ago. A loss would underscore the limits of its appeal.

“It would be a jewel in their crown if they threw Arkansas out,” said Sen. Kim Hammer, a Republican and an outspoken opponent of abortion.

Organizers have until Friday to gather enough signatures to get their initiative on the November ballot, and they’re optimistic they’ll clear at least that first hurdle. They argue that the lack of exceptions under current law — which only allows abortions to save a pregnant woman’s life in a medical emergency — and the precarious legal landscape for doctors will be enough to form a bipartisan coalition.

The campaign is about “being able to get the message across that Arkansas is worth fighting for,” said Marlee Stark, a volunteer, and “that we are not doomed to be at the bottom of every quality of life indicator.”

But polls also show that Arkansas is one of five states where only a minority believes abortion should be legal in all or most cases. In Little Rock, the state government is overseeing construction of a “Monument to the Unborn” to mark the end of Roe, with plans for thousands of plants to be installed on a living wall at the state Capitol.

And as volunteers spread across the state to collect signatures, those opposed to the measure have also mobilized, including some of Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ top advisersWHO left the governor’s office in part to lead outside efforts to make sure it fails.

Decades earlier, conservatives like Jerry Cox used the same initiative process to restrict abortion access in the state, proposing to prevent government money from going to abortion.

“We’ve woven a lot of pro-life threads into the tapestry of the state,” Mr. Cox, the president of the Family Council of Arkansas, said in an interview. Above his desk, pushpins in a map of Arkansas marked where paid canvassers had been at work collecting signatures. But he added of the proponents of the new ballot measure: “You have to take them very, very seriously. They’re going to fight to the bitter end.”

“That’s exactly what we did,” he continued. “I know what you can do when you have a small group of very dedicated people.”

If the effort gathers enough signatures, Arkansas would join at least four other states that are putting a similar question on the ballot this fall. Nevada’s secretary of state certified a similar initiative for the November ballot on Sunday, while groups in Arizona And Nebraska are also dealing with deadlines this week.

But unlike Arizona or Nevada, Arkansas is not considered a battleground for the presidential or Senate races that could otherwise mobilize voters or outside support. National abortion rights groups have not publicly supported the effort. And even with enough signatures, legal challenges are possible.

Organizers, many of whom are unpaid volunteers, must collect 90,704 signatures — 10 percent of the votes cast in the 2022 gubernatorial race — and have them certified by the secretary of state to get the initiative on the ballot. Under a new measure recently passed by the state’s Republican-led Legislature, a certain minimum The standard must also be met in at least 50 of the state’s 75 counties, more than double the previous requirement.

On Monday, ballot advocates estimated they needed at least 10,000 more signatures to comfortably meet the requirement, and they sent volunteers to complete the handful of counties where signatures were still needed. Getting on the ballot, however, does not guarantee that a majority of voters will approve the measure in November.

“If this goes to the ballot box and 60 percent of people say abortion should never be allowed, for anyone, then I’m like, ‘OK, we need to recalibrate and figure out what’s next,'” said Sara Putman, 46, who held a book signing at her independent bookstore in Fort Smith, near the Oklahoma state line. “But I just don’t think that’s what the numbers show..”

Advocates have banded together under the name Arkansans for Limited Government, in an effort to appeal to the state’s libertarians and centrists. Their proposed amendment — legal language that has already been signed into law by the Republican attorney general — would not go as far as other states.

The amendment would allow abortions up to 18 weeks after conception, instead of the 24 weeks used in most other ballot initiatives. It would also add exceptions beyond rape, incest or if the fetus would not survive outside the womb, and would expand the existing exception for the health of a pregnant woman. That, organizers say, would cover most abortions previously performed in the state.

Critics of the measure argue that the amendment’s language, particularly regarding exceptions, is misleadingly broad and that it is an extreme change. (In 2019, Arkansas passed a law banning abortions after 18 weeks.)

And even as they signed, some abortion rights advocates said the measure didn’t go far enough.

“I wish it went further,” Gabrielle Sandoval, 27, said after signing the petition at a Pride celebration in Little Rock. But, she added, “it’s a good step toward change.”

Canvassers said it can be difficult to broach the subject of abortion with strangers in this corner of the South, with fears of personal or professional backlash if you sign.

“I’ll start with the hard one, the one on abortion,” said Raymond Whiteside, as he waited with petitions for various ballot measures outside an evening community meeting in West Memphis, just across the river from Tennessee.

While he collected a few signatures, many people politely declined. Sometimes, other volunteers said, people returned just to sign. Some said they were motivated by a desire for more exemptions under the law, or by discomfort with the government imposing restrictions on health care.

At times, the discussions with counterprotesters or critics have escalated to threats, canvassers said. In June, the Family Council published the names of paid recruitersobtained under the Public Records Act, thereby raising fears of personal or professional reprisals.

The effort has also drawn new types of volunteers, including gynecologists frustrated by the legal quagmire, women who have had previous abortions, retirees who remember the rights Roe gave them, and young women angry that they no longer have them.

“This is not me. I’m an introvert,” said Norma Smith, 69, a retired gynecologist in Fort Smith. Collecting signatures, she said, “gives you a sense of accomplishment.”

They can be seen at food truck gatherings and festivals. They’ve even mingled with the crowds at Hot Springs’ annual bathtub races, a local tradition in which teams drive sloshing tubs down Central Avenue.

Ted Harps, who was on the sidelines of the races, said he was excited about former President Donald J. Trump’s ambitions to return to the White House. But Mr. Harps, a retired AT&T engineer, took a minute to sign the petition because, he said, Arkansas had gone too far with its abortion ban.

“It’s between you and your God what you decide to do,” said Mr Harps, 66. He added: “It’s none of my business — you women sort it out.”

Elizabeth Dias contributed to the reporting.

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