Legislative efforts in Missouri and Mississippi are attempting to prevent voters from having a say over abortion rights, building on anti-abortion strategies seen in other states, including last year in Ohio.
Democrats and abortion rights advocates say the efforts are evidence that Republican lawmakers and abortion opponents are trying to undercut democratic processes meant to give voters a direct role in forming state laws.
“They’re scared of the people and their voices, so their response is to prevent their voices from being heard,” said Laurie Bertram Roberts, executive director of Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund. “There’s nothing democratic about that, and it’s the same blueprint we’ve seen in Ohio and all these other states, again and again.”
Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion in 2022, voters in seven states have either protected abortion rights or defeated attempts to curtail them in statewide votes. Democrats have pledged to make the issue a central campaign topic this year for races up and down the ballot.
A proposal passed Wednesday by the Mississippi House would ban residents from placing abortion initiatives on the statewide ballot. Mississippi has among the toughest abortion restrictions in the country, with the procedure banned except to save the life of the woman or in cases of rape or incest.
In response to the bill, Democratic Rep. Cheikh Taylor said direct democracy “shouldn’t include terms and conditions.”
“Don’t let anyone tell you this is just about abortion,” Taylor said. “This is about a Republican Party who thinks they know what’s best for you better than you know what’s best for you. This is about control. So much for liberty and limited government.”
The resolution is an attempt to revive a ballot initiative process in Mississippi, which has been without one since 2021 when the state Supreme Court ruled that the process was invalid because it required people to gather signatures from the state’s five previous U.S. House districts. Mississippi dropped to four districts after the 2000 census, but the initiative language was never updated.
Republican Rep. Fred Shanks said House Republicans would not have approved the resolution, which will soon head to the Senate, without the abortion exemption. Some House Republicans said voters should not be allowed to vote on changing abortion laws because Mississippi originated the legal case that overturned Roe v. Wade.
“It took 50 years … to overturn Roe v. Wade,” said Mississippi House Speaker Jason White, a Republican. “We weren’t going to let it just be thrown out the window by folks coming in from out of state, spending 50 million bucks and running an initiative through.”
But Mississippi Democrats and abortion access organizations panned the exemption as limiting the voice of the people.
“This is an extremely undemocratic way to harm access to reproductive health care,” said Sofia Tomov, operations coordinator with Access Reproductive Care Southeast, a member of the Mississippi Abortion Access Coalition. “It’s infringing on people’s ability to participate in the democratic process.”
In Missouri, one of several states where an abortion rights initiative could go before voters in the fall, a plan supported by anti-abortion groups would require initiatives to win a majority vote in five of the state’s eight congressional districts, in addition to a simple statewide majority.
The proposal comes days after a Missouri abortion-rights campaign launched its ballot measure effort aiming to enshrine abortion rights into the state constitution. Missouri abortion rights groups also have criticized Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, saying he is attempting to impede the initiative by manipulating the measure’s ballot summary. A Missouri appeals court recently found the summaries were politically partisan and misleading.
When asked during a recent committee hearing if the GOP proposal was an attempt to get rid of direct democracy, Republican state Rep. Ed Lewis said “I think that our founding fathers were about as fearful of direct democracy as we should be. That’s why they created a republic.”
Sam Lee, lobbyist for Campaign Life Missouri, testified on Tuesday for the need for provisions like this that make sure “the rights of the minority aren’t trampled on.”
“The concern of our founders, and the concern of many people throughout the decades and years, is to avoid having a tyranny of the majority,” he said.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo said controlling who can vote and on what subjects has been “the highest priority of the Republican Party for the last 20 years.”
“This is how democracies die,” he said in an interview. “We are watching it in real time. This is the scariest moment that I’ve seen in my lifetime.”
Democratic Rep. Joe Adams criticized the plan in part by alleging that the state’s congressional and legislative districts are gerrymandered to favor Republicans. That would make it nearly impossible for an abortion measure to be approved under the proposed legislation.
Attempts to keep abortion measures off the ballot in Missouri and Mississippi follow a similar blueprint in other states to target the ballot initiative process, a form of direct democracy available to voters in only about half the states.
Florida’s Republican attorney general has asked the state Supreme Court to keep a proposed abortion rights amendment off the ballot as an abortion-rights coalition this month reached the necessary number of signatures to qualify it for the 2024 ballot.
President Joe Biden called on Congress to pass abortion rights legislation on Monday, the 51st anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v. Wade.
In Nevada, a judge on Tuesday approved an abortion-rights ballot measure petition as eligible for signature-gathering, striking down a legal challenge by anti-abortion groups attempting to prevent the question from going before voters.
Ohio abortion rights advocates have said last year’s statewide vote to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution was as much about abortion as it was a referendum on democracy itself. They said Republicans tried to obstruct the democratic process before the vote and attempted to ignore the will of voters after the amendment passed.
Ohio Republicans called a special election in August attempting to raise the threshold for passing future constitutional amendments from a simple majority to 60%. That effort was defeated at the polls and was widely seen as aiming to undermine the abortion amendment.
After Ohio voters approved the abortion protections last year, Republican lawmakers pledged to block the amendment from reversing the state’s restrictions. Some proposed preventing Ohio courts from interpreting any cases related to the amendment.
“It wasn’t just about abortion,” Deirdre Schifeling, chief political and advocacy officer of the ACLU, said last fall after the Ohio amendment passed. “It’s about, ‘Will the majority be heard?’”
Associated Press writers Summer Ballentine in Jefferson City, Missouri, and Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Mississippi, contributed to this report.