Abortion Rights Group Says it Has Signatures to Qualify Initiative for Ballot

Election administrators must determine if CI-128 has enough verifiable signatures to go before voters in November

By Mara Silvers, Montana Free Press
Hundreds gathered for an abortion rights march in downtown Kalispell on May 14, 2022. It coincided with many protests around the country after a leaked majority draft opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court revealed a vote to overturn Roe V. Wade. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Despite legal delays and a persistent opposition movement, organizers of an initiative to enshrine a right to abortion in the Montana Constitution say they have gathered enough signatures to put the proposal on the November ballot.

The group behind Constitutional Initiative 128, Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights, said in a Friday press conference that it had collected more than 117,000 signatures since early April, about 57,000 more than the necessary 60,359.

Those signatures, due to county election offices Friday, now must be checked by local election administrators through line-by-line work that will likely take several weeks. Ballot qualification requirements for constitutional initiatives also mandate that a proposal must receive at least 604 signatures from registered voters in 40 of Montana’s 100 House districts. 

Initiative backers typically aim to surpass thresholds with the expectation that a significant fraction of signatures won’t pass the verification process.

Representatives of the CI-128 sponsor coalition, which includes Forward Montana, the ACLU of Montana and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana, said Friday they were confident they had cleared the bar.

“This is truly a historic day to celebrate,” said Akilah Deernose, the ACLU of Montana’s executive director. “We collected signatures in every county all across Montana, from Sheridan to Beaverhead to Lincoln to Carter and everywhere in between.”

Representatives of groups opposing CI-128, including Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America and the Montana Life Defense Fund, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on MSRR’s announcement Friday.

MSRR began delivering boxes of signature petition forms to county election administrators on Thursday. Officials in Missoula County said the group had turned in 3,434 petition sheets, which can contain up to ten signatures each. In Yellowstone County, election administrators said the MSRR submitted at least 3,158 sheets, while in Lewis and Clark County, the stack registered 1,507. 

But assessing how many of those signatures can be counted in each House district requires elections administrators to vet each one against voter registration information. And other constitutional initiatives, including the pair of election reform proposals CI-126 and CI-127, are first in line for the signature-review process.

“It will be about four weeks before we will know all the numbers for any of CI-128 petitions,” said Jill Bezdicek, an election worker in Missoula County.  

MSRR has stockpiled millions of dollars to support its campaign through the next several months. The group has pulled in more than $3 million in contributions, according to early June financial campaign reports, and spent less than $1 million so far. The campaign’s largest contributions come from out-of-state sources, including the political action committee formed by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a progressive dark money group called the Sixteen Thirty Fund and The Fairness Project, a national ballot measure group. 

Martha Fuller, the head of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana, said the group was in the process of building a “serious field and media campaign” to inform voters about the initiative.

“The work from here on out is talking to every single voter across Montana as many times as we possibly can,” Fuller said. “We’re going to need to talk to every single voter and make sure they understand the importance of this and get them motivated and excited to go out and vote for it.”

Abortion is currently legal in Montana under the state constitution’s right of privacy, a legal precedent set by the Montana Supreme Court in 1999. As a result, Montanans’ ability to access abortion remains largely unencumbered by restrictive state laws while a slate of Republican-backed policies — ranging from regulations on abortion pills to a ban on dilation and evacuation procedures — are blocked in state courts. 

If passed by voters, the constitutional amendment proposed by CI-128 would bring a new legal framework for protecting abortion access to Montana. As with any right outlined in the state constitution, CI-128’s scope and application would likely be defined over the course of years and decades, both through the passage of new state laws and judicial interpretation.

The complete language of the constitutional amendment is viewable on the Montana Secretary of State website. In three distinct sections, CI-128 prohibits the government from denying or burdening the right to an abortion unless “justified by a compelling government interest achieved by the least restrictive means.” The language clarifies that the government can regulate abortion after fetal viability unless a treating health care provider determines the procedure “is medically indicated to protect the life or health of the pregnant patient.”

CI-128 also defines a government interest as “compelling” “only if it clearly and convincingly addresses a medically acknowledged, bona fide health risk to a pregnant patient and does not infringe on the patient’s autonomous decision making.” 

The measure does not define “fetal viability” by a specific gestational week but rather as “the point in pregnancy when, in the good faith judgment of a treating health care professional and based on the particular facts of the case, there is a significant likelihood of the fetus’s sustained survival outside the uterus without the application of extraordinary medical measures.”

CI-128’s content and ballot summary were the subject of months of legal clashes between MSRR and Attorney General Austin Knudsen, a Republican who has previously called for Montana’s existing legal abortion framework to be reversed by the state Supreme Court. 

Among other arguments, Knudsen said the proposal had bundled too many distinct components together and would result in unacknowledged consequences. 

In a February court filing, Knudsen’s assistant attorney generals wrote that the initiative’s proponents “seek to establish an explicit constitutional right to abortion, but their apparent attempt to render that right absolute has only resulted in self-contradiction and implications reaching far beyond abortion itself. This presents a high risk of significant voter confusion if included on the ballot.”

While the Montana Supreme Court ultimately ruled against most of Knudsen’s legal positions, his offices’ arguments have since been echoed by opposition groups campaigning against CI-128.

In physical fliers handed out at public events around Montana and online posts, groups including Prolife Montana, Montana Life Defense Fund and Montanans for Life have cast CI-128 as a slippery slope and urged voters not to sign MSRR’s petitions. If passed, those opponents say, the measure would lead to more abortions later in pregnancy, boost human trafficking and restrict the rights of parents who want a say in abortion decisions made by their teenage children.

“Taxpayer-funded abortion throughout all nine months of pregnancy will be enshrined into our state constitution if CI-128 (formerly Ballot Issue 14) becomes law,” wrote Robin Sertell, an organizer with Prolife Montana, in an April Facebook post. “Parents will lose the right to know if their child has an abortion, and this will create a more favorable environment for sex trafficking — it’s the last thing we need in Montana!”

Some opponents of CI-128 spent the last several weeks of signature gathering physically following MSRR volunteers and employees with video cameras to monitor and deter signature collection. While the primary organizer of the videotaping efforts, the Montana Life Defense Fund, has defended those actions as lawful, MSRR has accused the group of harassment, threats and intimidation. 

“It made it really difficult to get signatures,” said Theresa Da Silva, a paid CI-128 signature gatherer with the election group Landslide Political, about the filming and flier distribution by opposition groups. “Their goal was to intimidate us and make us go away and stop trying to get signatures … I know for myself, it just made me dig in a little harder and say, nope, we’re going to get this on the ballot.”

This story originally appeared in the Montana Free Press, which can be found online at montanafreepress.org.