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Abortion Rights Supporters Put a Winning Strategy to the Test in Arkansas

Abortion Rights Supporters Put a Winning Strategy to the Test in Arkansas

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In states like California, Ohio and Michigan, supporters of abortion rights have been undefeated in using ballot measures to ensure constitutional access to the procedure.

But their approach is about to face perhaps its toughest test yet in Arkansas, a state with a near-total abortion ban and where conservative and evangelical values run deep. A victory here could show just how scrambled the politics of abortion have become since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade two years ago. A loss would illustrate the limits of its appeal.

“It would be a jewel in their crown for them to take Arkansas out,” said State Senator Kim Hammer, a Republican and an outspoken opponent of abortion.

Organizers have until Friday to gather enough signatures to get their initiative on the November ballot, and are optimistic of at least passing that first hurdle. They argue that the lack of exceptions under the current law — it only allows for an abortion to save the life of a pregnant woman in a medical emergency — and the precarious legal landscape for doctors will be enough to build a bipartisan coalition.

The campaign is about “being able to deliver that message that Arkansas is worth fighting for,” said Marlee Stark, a volunteer, and “that we’re not doomed to linger in the bottom ranking of every quality-of-life indicator.”

But polls also show that Arkansas is one of just five states where only a minority believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. In Little Rock, the state government is overseeing the construction of a “Monument to the Unborn” to mark the end of Roe, with plans for thousands of plants to be installed on a living wall at the State Capitol.

And as volunteers have fanned out across the state to gather signatures, those opposed to the measure have mobilized as well, including some of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s top aides, who left the governor’s office in part to help lead outside efforts to ensure it fails.

Decades earlier, conservatives like Jerry Cox used the same ballot initiative process to chip away at abortion access in the state, with a proposal to prevent public funds from going toward abortion.

“We’ve woven into the tapestry of the state lots of pro-life threads,” Mr. Cox, the president of the Family Council in Arkansas, said in an interview. Over his desk, push pins in a map of Arkansas marked where paid canvassers had been at work collecting signatures. But he added about the new ballot measure’s supporters: “You have to take them very, very seriously. They will fight to the bitter end.”

“That’s exactly what we did,” he continued. “I know what can be done if you have a small group of highly dedicated people.”

Should this effort collect enough signatures, Arkansas would join at least four other states that are putting such a question up for a vote this fall. The Nevada secretary of state certified a similar initiative on Sunday for the November ballot, while groups in Arizona and Nebraska also face deadlines this week.

But unlike Arizona or Nevada, Arkansas is not considered a battleground for either the presidential or Senate races, which could otherwise galvanize voters or outside support. National abortion-rights groups have not openly backed the effort. And even with enough signatures, legal challenges are possible.

Organizers, many unpaid volunteers, must collect 90,704 signatures — 10 percent of the votes cast in the 2022 governor’s race — and have them certified by the secretary of state to get the initiative on the ballot. Under a new measure recently passed by the state’s Republican-led legislature, a certain minimum must also be met in at least 50 of the state’s 75 counties, more than double a previous requirement.

As of Monday, supporters of the ballot measure estimated that they needed at least 10,000 more signatures to comfortably meet the requirement, and it was dispatching volunteers to round out the handful of counties where signatures were still needed. Getting on the ballot, however, does not guarantee a majority of voters will approve the measure in November.

“If this gets on the ballot and 60 percent of the people say no abortion, ever, for anybody, then I’ll be like, ‘OK, we’ve got to recalibrate and figure out what’s next,’” said Sara Putman, 46, who has hosted a signing spot at her independent bookstore in Fort Smith, near the state border with Oklahoma. “But I just don’t think that’s what the numbers show.”

Supporters have coalesced under the name Arkansans for Limited Government, in a bid to appeal to the state’s libertarians and centrists. Their proposed amendment — legal language already blessed by the Republican attorney general — will not go as far as other states.

The amendment would allow abortions up to 18 weeks after fertilization, rather than the 24 weeks used in most other ballot initiatives. It would also add exceptions beyond that for rape, incest or if the fetus would not survive outside the womb, and would expand upon the existing exception for the health of a pregnant woman. That, organizers say, would cover most of the abortions that used to happen in the state.

Critics of the measure argue that the amendment language, particularly around the exceptions, remains misleadingly broad and they have branded it as an extreme change. (In 2019, Arkansas approved a law that would ban abortion after 18 weeks.)

And even as they signed, some supporters of abortion rights said the measure didn’t go far enough.

“I wish it went farther,” Gabrielle Sandoval, 27, said after signing onto the petition at a Pride celebration in Little Rock. But, she added, “It’s a good step toward change.”

Canvassers said that broaching the topic of abortion with strangers in this corner of the South can be difficult. There are fears of incurring personal or professional backlash for signing.

“I’m going to start with the hard one, the abortion one,” said Raymond Whiteside, as he waited with petitions for multiple ballot initiatives outside an evening community meeting in West Memphis, just across the river from Tennessee.

While he collected a couple signatures, many people politely turned him down. Sometimes, other volunteers said, people came back, alone, to sign. Some said they were driven by a desire for more exceptions under the law, or by a discomfort with the government setting restrictions on health care.

At times, exchanges with counterprotesters or critics have escalated into threats, canvassers said. In June, the Family Council published of the names of paid canvassers, obtained under public records law, fueling fears of personal or professional retaliation.

The effort has also invigorated new types of volunteers, including obstetricians frustrated by the legal quagmire, women who previously got abortions, retirees who remember gaining the right granted by Roe and young women angry that they don’t have it anymore.

“This is not me. I’m an introvert,” said Norma Smith, 69, a former obstetrician in Fort Smith. Collecting signatures, she said, “makes you feel like you are doing something.”

They have set up alongside food truck rallies and at festivals, and they even moved among the crowd gathered for the annual bathtub races in Hot Springs, a local tradition where teams wheel sloshing tubs down Central Avenue.

Standing on the sidelines of the races, Ted Harps said he was enthusiastic about former President Donald J. Trump’s ambitions to return to the White House. But Mr. Harps, a retired AT&T technician, took a minute to sign onto the petition because, he said, Arkansas had gone too far with its abortion ban.

“It’s between you and your God what you decide to do,” Mr. Harps, 66, said. He added, “It’s none of my business — you guys, the females deal with it.”

Elizabeth Dias contributed reporting.

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