Abortion Rights Advocates Report Intimidation During Signature Collection Effort  

Signature gatherers working to secure a constitutional right to abortion in Montana say they have been followed, filmed and intimidated while collecting signatures in the Flathead Valley. During a Tuesday altercation in Whitefish, organizers of the city’s farmers market, signature gatherers and anti-abortion observers sparred over observers’ rights to film and follow petition organizers.  

By Denali Sagner
A voter drops their ballot in a ballot box outside the Flathead County Election Office in Kalispell for the primary election on June 7, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Advocates for a ballot initiative attempting to secure a constitutional right to abortion in Montana reported being intimidated, followed and filmed by anti-abortion activists while collecting signatures in the Flathead Valley. 

Altercations between signature gatherers, organizers of the Whitefish Farmers Market and anti-abortion petition observers unfolded in downtown Whitefish on Tuesday night as observers followed and filmed signature gatherers. While observers asserted their right to film in a public place, citing “petition integrity,” signature gatherers said the observers’ actions were the latest in a weeks-long pattern of intimidation and harassment. 

Signature gatherers are working to secure a place on the ballot for Constitutional Initiative 128 (CI 128), an initiative that would amend the Montana Constitution to explicitly provide a right to make and carry out decisions about one’s own pregnancy, including a right to abortion. CI 128 would prohibit the state from denying or burdening the right to abortion before fetal viability, which occurs around 24 weeks of pregnancy. The amendment would also bar the state from denying or burdening abortion access if a medical provider deems it necessary to protect the life of a pregnant patient and from penalizing providers who assist an individual in obtaining an abortion. 

The initiative was brought by Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights (MSRR), a Helena-based organization led by officials from the ACLU of Montana, Forward Montana and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana. The group has described CI 128 as an “exciting opportunity to secure our rights for generations to come” and to “ensure power remains in the hands of the people of Montana.” 

MSRR has raised over $3.1 million since December of last year, according to campaign finance filings. 

In order for the initiative to appear on the ballot in November, advocates must secure around 60,000 signatures –– or 10% of qualified Montana electors –– by June 21. The initiative must have signatures from 10% of the voters in 40 different state House districts, requiring a diversity of signers throughout Montana. 

Signatures can be rejected for a number of reasons, including if signers write an incorrect or illegible date, address or last name. Per Montana law, a county official must verify the name of each and every petition signer to ensure they are registered electors of the county, and must randomly select signatures to make sure they match up with the signature on file for the voter.

If the majority of voters approve the amendment in November, it will be added to the state’s constitution. 

Wyatt Wildey, a paid signature gatherer with Landslide Political, a progressive political consulting group working on CI 128, said anti-abortion observers have followed him at least a dozen times during his three weeks of signature gathering in the Flathead Valley. Wildey reported observers filming him during signature collecting and following his car as he drove to different signature collection sites.

As Wildey collected signatures at the Whitefish Farmers Market on Tuesday, an anti-abortion observer followed him closely with a body camera and recorded him as he spoke to potential petition signers. 

Signature gatherers for Constitutional Initiative 128 (left) are observed by an anti-abortion petition observer (right) at the Whitefish Farmers Market in downtown Whitefish on June 11, 2024. Signature gatherers reported being followed and filmed by observers wearing body cameras as they collected signatures. Denali Sagner | Flathead Beacon

Another signature gatherer, who declined to share her name, said the observers have been present at the farmers market for the past three weeks. Typically, she said, they walk up to her and announce that they’re recording, as is required by Montana law, before asking her questions about the ballot language of CI 128. 

“This is an intimidation attempt to stop people from signing,” Wildey said. 

“Over the past three weeks, I’ve been through hell,” he added. 

Farmers market organizers asked the observers to leave, alleging they were making patrons uncomfortable. Observers doubled down on their right to film in a public place. Montana law does not criminalize the recording of in-person conversations so long as all parties are notified that they are being recorded.

Both petition observers present at the farmers market declined to speak with the Beacon. 

“Despite ongoing harassment, we’ve had incredible interest and excitement around our effort to put CI-128 on the November ballot. We are making great progress and are on track to meet the Montana signature requirements by the deadline next week,” a spokesperson for MSRR said in an email. “… In recent weeks, we’ve seen a minority of anti-abortion extremists escalate their harassment and intimidation of our volunteers because they are desperate. Fear and intimidation are the only tactics they have left when faced with the overwhelming public support for reproductive rights in Montana.”

As opposition to CI 128 has mounted, signature gatherers have been filmed and followed across the state, including in Helena, Butte, Billings, Bozeman and Stevensville, according to reporting by the Montana Free Press. 

Signature observing has been spearheaded by the Montana Life Defense Fund, a political action committee funded by the conservative policy group the Montana Family Foundation. The Montana Family Foundation is based in Laurel and is run by former Republican legislator Jeff Laszloffy. 

Per campaign filings, the Montana Family Foundation has paid for 30 video cameras for “signature integrity” efforts, as well as Zoom training and travel expenses for observers.  

The group has alleged that Planned Parenthood and other advocacy groups are “hiding the truth” about CI 128 from voters.

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a comment from Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights.