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Advocates begin campaign to get Montana abortion amendment on November ballot

Montana State Capitol
Posted at 5:41 PM, Apr 18, 2024

HELENA — Advocates say they’re a week into the process of gathering signatures to try to qualify a proposed ballot initiative that would specifically add abortion rights to Montana’s constitution. They say it’s going to be a lot of work to get the more than 60,000 signatures they need by the June 21 deadline, but they’re optimistic they can get it done.

“We have found in the last week, people have been approaching the signature-gatherers asking if that's what they're collecting for, in order to sign,” said Martha Fuller, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana. “So that, I think, is a great sign.”

PPAMT is one of the main organizations backing Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights, the committee sponsoring Constitutional Initiative 128. Other partners include the ACLU of Montana, Forward Montana and the Fairness Project. MSRR officially kicked off their campaign Tuesday at an event in Helena.

CI-128 would add language to the state constitution, establishing “a right to make and carry out decisions about one’s own pregnancy, including the right to abortion.” Fuller said it’s intended to reinforce the precedent set in Montana Supreme Court’s 1999 Armstrong decision, which stated that the state constitution’s right to privacy protected access to abortion before a fetus is viable.

“We have long relied on the courts here in Montana to protect this right, and we know because of what we've seen at the federal level and across the country that we can't solely rely upon that,” Fuller said. “We want to have a very explicit statement of our rights in the Constitution.”

In order to qualify CI-128 for the November ballot, supporters need at least 60,359 signatures from registered voters across Montana – 10% of the total votes for governor in Montana’s last election. They also have to get 10% of voters in at least 40 of Montana’s 100 legislative districts.

Fuller said MSRR plans to have people collecting signatures on a regular basis in Montana’s largest cities, along with volunteers working in smaller communities across the state.

“It's going to be fast-paced – a marathon at a sprint pace, I guess I would say,” she said.

Typically, before a proposed ballot measure is approved for signature gathering, it has to go through a review in a state legislative committee. Lawmakers can’t stop the measure from going forward, but their vote in support of or in opposition to it goes on the petition forms signature gatherers use.

Earlier this month, the Montana Supreme Court ruled CI-128 didn’t have to go through that process. Justices said state law only calls for a review after the attorney general rules an initiative is legally sufficient to move forward. In this case, Attorney General Austin Knudsen said CI-128 was not sufficient, but the Supreme Court overruled his decision.

Majority Republicans in the Legislature said, regardless of the Court’s decision, lawmakers still needed an opportunity to have their say on the measure. Senate President Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, announced the Law and Justice Interim Committee would hold a review Thursday.

During the committee’s meeting, held over Zoom, the six Republican members all voted to oppose placing CI-128 on the ballot. They said the language of the initiative was too broad, that it would go farther than the Armstrong decision and that it would limit the state from making regulations they argued would help protect patients.

“In the end, it's surprising and disappointing that the Supreme Court would approve an initiative that's vague and takes away legal protection from women,” said Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell.

The two Democratic members of the committee did not participate in the meeting. As it began, the House and Senate minority leaders released a statement, saying they stayed away because the hearing was unnecessary.

“Reproductive freedom, including the right to access abortion care, is broadly popular among Montanans, and this initiative would explicitly protect those rights in the Montana Constitution,” said Senate Minority Leader Sen. Pat Flowers and House Minority Leader Rep. Kim Abbott. “We will not participate in Republicans’ attempts to keep this initiative away from the voters.”

Ellsworth released a statement of his own, accusing the Supreme Court of “naked political partisanship” and criticizing Democrats for not participating.

“I get that it’s frustrating being in the minority, but that’s no excuse for elected lawmakers intentionally failing to show up for the work that they were elected to do,” he said. “I can’t believe they would rob their constituents of the opportunity to be represented on such an important topic as a constitutional amendment.”

Most proponents of CI-128 also stayed away from the meeting. The committee took roughly one hour of testimony from people opposed to the measure, while only one person spoke in support of it.

“Our job right now is to be making sure that we are doing that signature collection,” said Fuller. “So we are choosing to leave the political theater up to politicians, and we're just focused in on doing the work that we need to do right now to get on the ballot for Montanans.”

Julianne Burkhardt, an attorney with the Legislative Services Division, told the committee their vote would not be added to the petitions for CI-128.

Also on Thursday, the national anti-abortion group SBA Pro-Life America announced it would be sending more than 50 canvassers to Montana to advocate against CI-128, as well as to support Republican U.S. Senate candidate Tim Sheehy.