Host: On Wednesday, the organizers of the petition drive to enshrine the right to an abortion in the Florida constitution announced they had enough signatures. But then, they retracted – kind of. So what’s with the abortion petition — will the question make it on the ballot in November? WSLR News reporter Ryan Stanley tried to find out.
Ryan Stanley: Floridians Protecting Freedom, along with a coalition of grassroots organizations and individual volunteers in Florida, have officially completed collecting petitions to enshrine an amendment in the Florida Constitution that would widen abortion access. According to the campaign’s online dashboard, as of December 22nd, 833,743 petition signatures have been verified by supervisors of elections across the state, and 12 out of 14 congressional districts have met required progress goals. Stacks of petitions are currently being finalized at a central hub in Sarasota and victory has all but been declared.
Amy Weintraub: Yeah, so we know that we have collected 1.4 million petitions across the State of Florida and that you know, it’s just like, it’s amazing.
RS: That’s Amy Weintraub, Reproductive Rights Program Director for Progress Florida.
AW: We started on May 9, and so in seven months we have collected that many — and we overcollected. Y’all know we only really needed almost 900,000 in order to qualify for the ballot. I mean, that’s what any petition initiative needs in the state of Florida, but we overcollected on purpose, because we know that many of them will be rejected by the individual county SOEs — supervisors of elections — because of a lot of things; because the person wasn’t actually a registered voter who filled it out; because the signature on the form doesn’t match what’s on the voter file, etc. So we have to overcollect to make sure that we’ll have enough that are actually valid. We more than exceeded our goal. Our original goal was 1.25 million, and it looks like by the end of the month, we will actually have submitted to SOEs 1.45 million. Yeah, we’re celebrating the fact that we exceeded our goal, as far as petition collection goes.
RS: The abortion rights referendum, if it makes the ballot and earns at least 60% support in the November 2024 election, would prohibit any law limiting the ability to obtain an abortion before fetal viability — generally between 20 and 25 weeks into a term — or if an abortion is “necessary to protect the patient’s health, as determined by the patient’s health care provider.”
Florida currently has a 15-week abortion ban, considered a compromise limit by GOP representatives at the national level, but restrictions could tighten to six weeks if the state Supreme Court rejects a legal challenge relating to the 15-week ban.
So with the looming threat of a six-week ban coming from the bench any day now, and knowing the signature verification process can take weeks or months, is the coalition claiming a win prematurely?
AW: What we’re celebrating is the fact that we have met our first goal, which is to collect enough petitions that we’re a step closer to getting on the ballot. We are fully aware that there are a lot of other steps that need to happen for reproductive freedom to be secure. And first and foremost, that is getting through the validation process. So until we see that happen, which could be as late as Feb. 1, to be honest with you, and that’s how long the Division of Elections has to report out. Until we see that, we still can’t be 100% sure that we have the petitions or the number of validations we need. Further, the ballot language has to be approved by the state Supreme Court. They don’t have to agree with what the measure says, but they do have to agree that it’s within a certain number of words, that it’s in plain English that voters can understand, that it’s not confusing for voters, or deliberately worded to fool voters, if you will. And so they have to rule on that. And that has to happen. It probably is likely to happen in March and they are likely to schedule oral arguments. So anyway, so that’s got to happen.
RS: In practice, this means a busy few months for abortion rights advocates. The campaign must pay overtime wages to Supervisor of Elections officers around the state to verify signatures. They are also facing heavy scrutiny by anti-abortion Gov. Ron DeSantis and his attorney general, Ashley Moody.
Weintraub isn’t concerned.
AW: We don’t think that her complaint holds water. We’re really ready, eager and prepared for our legal team to represent our position at the Supreme Court during oral arguments. And by the way, our legal team is populated with amazing constitutional law experts, they are so ready to defend our language and our verbiage.
RS: The last push would be getting final approval from Florida voters at a threshold of 60%.
A University of North Florida poll released in late November found 62% of Floridians indicating support for the amendment. Yes, that’s more than the 60% threshold to pass, but not by much.
AW: Then, it is a huge persuasion campaign and that is like any statewide political campaign that a candidate runs or that a ballot initiative runs. It’s going to be identifying voters who care about this issue, educating them on it, getting them ready to vote, making sure that they have their vote-by-mail order, and making sure that they’re registered, making sure they know where to vote. And then, getting them out to vote, getting them to return their ballots by mail, if that’s what they’re doing, or getting them to the polls on election day. And all of that, as you well know, costs a fortune. Statewide political campaigns cost millions of dollars. So along the way, even right now, today, we are raising money to pull that off. There’s still so much to do before we can actually like celebrate success. That’s not going to be happening until election day in 2024.
RS: Weintraub and Floridians Protecting Freedom told me that voters who have petitions to submit can mail them to Post Office Box 4068, Sarasota, Florida, 34230.
For WSLR News, this has been Ryan Stanley.
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