© 2024 KUAF
NPR Affiliate since 1985
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Statewide ballot petition initiative launched to overturn Arkansas' abortion ban

Ezra Smith, field committee volunteer with Arkansans for Limited Government, with West Fork resident, Devin Gabbard signing a citizen-initiated petition to overturn Arkansas' abortion ban on the November
Ezra Smith, field committee volunteer with Arkansans for Limited Government, monitors West Fork resident, Devin Gabbard signing a citizen-initiated petition to overturn Arkansas' abortion ban.

Patrons gathered last Friday evening inside Columbus House Brewery and Tap Room in Fayetteville to relax after a long work week. At the far end of the bar Ezra Smith sits at a table collecting petition signatures from voters to overturn Arkansas's near-total abortion ban. He's a field committee volunteer with Arkansans for Limited Government.

"Which is the ballot question committee in support of the proposed Arkansas Abortion Amendment."

Arkansans for Limited Government is supported by pro-choice grassroot organizers, volunteer citizens, health care providers, and faith leaders committed to restoring safe abortion access in Arkansas. Arkansas was among 13 states that immediately enacted trigger bans after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in the summer of 2022. Both surgical and medication abortions are banned in Arkansas, except to save the life of a pregnant person, with no exception for incest or rape. Performing or attempting to perform an abortion is a felony, under the trigger ban. Those caught may be fined up to $100,000 and face being imprisoned for up to ten years.

If approved, the citizen-initiated constitutional amendment will allow access to abortion to pregnant people up to 18 weeks after fertilization. Allowance is also made in the instance of rape, incest, fatal fetal anomaly, or when abortion is needed to protect a pregnant person's life or physical health. The constitutional amendment would in effect limit state lawmakers from attempting in future to ban such reproductive care.

This on-going petition signing event at Columbus House Brewery is among a growing number of public and private canvassing sites mobilized after the ballot measure was certified by Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin January 24th.

"We have volunteer teams in every county," Smith says. "We're doing these events all over the state."

The deadline to gather signatures is July 5th. Arkansans for Limited Government plans to gather 150,000 signatures in at least 50 of 75 Arkansas counties, to meet the necessary 90,704 signature goal required by the state for the question to be placed on the November ballot.

Voter Darin Gabbard from West Fork signed the petition.

"I think it's a no brainer that women should have at minimum safety regulations allowed for their own bodies," Gabbard said. "And for decisions to be made in certain cases, the law should obviously be a little more lenient. Arkansas should support reproductive health."

Sarah Ironside also signed the petition.

"I'm getting older which means I'm starting to think more about [having a] family," Ironside said. "But lots of complications can happen. And the right timing for having a family needs to be a choice that we get to make. I've heard a lot of horror stories of pregnancy complications and got extremely scared."

Pregnant people in crisis in Arkansas have been forced to flee the state for care, and physicians could face arrest for providing emergency reproductive care. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the number of people nationally who crossed state lines to obtain abortions more than doubled, reaching 92,100 in the first six months of 2023. Pregnant Arkansans are able for now to obtain abortions in Illinois, Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado where reproductive health care remains legal.

Campaign canvasser Ezra Smith says he's leading a good number of on-boarding petition collection trainings in the coming weeks for anyone willing to volunteer.

"You can sign up on our website and you'll immediately get an e-mail with options for where you can get trained," Smith said. "We usually train every day at different times to cover folks who are working and in evenings. The training is very simple but there are a lot of rules for signature collection and so this is our way of maintaining quality control and making sure that the folks who are volunteering for us know all of the rules, know best practices and can canvas in the most efficient way."

Volunteer canvassers are equipped with petition forms, clipboards, stickers and signs, and are required to follow strict rules when gathering signatures from voters.

"Voters have to use their full legal name, and we've got to write as legibly as possible," he said. "We want to do things that ensure that each individual voter signature is not tossed for some violation. All the canvassing packets also have to be notarized in the correct order so pages are not thrown out."

Canvassers are required to check if a voter's registration data is up to date as well as their county residency before a person can sign. Only canvassers are able to strike and correct voter petition form data. Any error may result in the entire ballot, which may contain multiple signatures, being rejected.

"The Secretary of State gave us some guidance as we began our field campaign," Smith said. "And one thing that they told us is that we can update voter registration in the same time that someone signs the petition, and it's no problem. Arkansans have a simple tool, a free publicly available tool, called Voter View, for voters to pull up to see how they appear in the voter roll, their legal name and address, where they are registered, to make sure their information they are submitting is accurate."

The statewide abortion ballot canvas is divided by regions, referred to as clusters, Smith said, who's working with a growing number of volunteers stepping forward to collect ballot petition signatures. Columbus House Brewery taproom manager Sawyer Hansen, who is monitoring ongoing canvassing at his establishment, said he supports the ballot initiative.

"It's a cause that means a lot to me," he said. "I think the overturning of Roe V Wade was a travesty and I think we need to do everything we can to correct it."

Hansen said he personally knows an individual directly impacted by the ban, forced to travel long distance to obtain reproductive health care.

State campaign spokesperson Sam Watson said canvassers are also being advised to "prioritize safety monitoring" for any interference from Arkansas Right to Life activists, which he said are expected to stage "peaceful interventions" at any number of signing events this election season.

Arkansas is among 13 states with proposed citizen-initiated pro-choice constitutional ballot measures this year, with citizens in six states having approved constitutional amendments affirming access since the U.S. Supreme Court nullified a 50-year old federal constitutional right to abortion.

Stay Connected
Jacqueline Froelich is an investigative reporter and news producer for <i>Ozarks at Large.</i>
Related Content