An effort to enshrine abortion rights in Florida's constitution is more than halfway to its goal
On a recent Saturday morning at the Williams Park Summer Market in St. Petersburg, 50-year-old Elsie Gilmore politely approaches customers with a smile ... and a question.
"Hey, have you guys signed the petition to get women's reproductive rights on the ballot in Florida?"
Gilmore is one of thousands of volunteers collecting signatures for the constitutional amendment proposal.
Its title reads: "Amendment to Limit Government Interference with Abortion" and its summarystates, "No law shall prohibit, penalize, delay, or restrict abortion before viability or when necessary to protect the patient’s health, as determined by the patient’s healthcare provider."
The initiative was launched in May, shortly after Gov. Ron DeSantis signeda six-week abortion bill into law. Implementation of that ban is on hold pending a state Supreme Court ruling on Florida's current 15-week abortion ban.
A matter of "oppression"
As Gilmore clutches a clipboard of petitions, she quickly gets her first signee of the day.
Joel Bridges of St. Petersburg grabs a pen and says he's signing to support his daughter.
"Women should be in control of their own bodies,” Bridges said. “This is just a bunch of men trying to oppress people."
To be successful, proponents have until Feb. 1 to collect signatures equal to 8% of the total number of votes cast in the last presidential election.
That amounts to 891,523 registered voters.
That's why Floridians Protecting Freedom, a coalition of groups including Planned Parenthood Action Fund, Planned Parenthood’s Florida affiliates, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Florida Rising and Women’s Voices of SW Florida, has also recruited paid staff to collect signatures.
The coalition raised $5 million in less than two months for that effort.
Hailey Fricke has traveled from St. Louis to join the amendment drive.
In St. Petersburg, her table attracts a steady stream of people eager to sign a petition. But the signatures have to be collected from at least half of the state’s 28 congressional districts. And as she crisscrosses the state, not every response has been as welcoming.
"People called me like, baby murderer, you know?" Fricke said. "Stuff like that, and you know I just let it roll off. Because at the end of the day, people are going to disagree and that's why we get stuff on the ballot. Because if you disagree, you vote no."
The anti-abortion group, Florida Voice for the Unborn, which lobbied DeSantis for a total abortion ban, has called the ballot proposal "radical." Another organization, Protect Human Life Florida, is collecting their own signatures for what they're calling the "Human Life Protection Amendment."
The group did not respond to WUSF's request for an update on its efforts.
Polling shows opposition to abortion restrictions
But Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a Stetson University law professor, points to polling that shows a majority of Floridians oppose a six-week ban and to victories for recent citizen driven initiatives as evidence that a majority of voters support access to abortion.
"When reproductive rights have been on the ballot in other states post the Supreme Court's decision in Dobbs in 2022, reproductive freedom has won in every single state where voters have had a chance to weigh in," Torres-Spelliscy said.
In the 2022 midterm election, voters in Michigan, California and Vermont enshrined the right to an abortion in their constitutions. Montana and Kentucky denied greater restrictions on abortion while voters in Kansas chose to keep the procedure legal.
Amy Weintraub, of the group Progress Florida, says with a Republican supermajority in both houses of the state legislature, a ballot initiative is the only way forward for abortion access in Florida.
"We need abortion to be explicitly named as a constitutionally protected right because until the makeup of the legislature changes, they are going to be constantly putting forward extremist anti-abortion legislation," Weintraubsaid.
A decision for future generations
Weintraub says if the issue is directly on the ballot in Florida, it could also serve as a major motivator for liberal-leaning voters in a presidential election year.
Among the issues that mobilize and divide voters, abortion is among the strongest.
“Floridians don’t want to see a six-week ban implemented,” said Lauren Brenzel, the campaign director for Floridians Protecting Freedom. “They are showing us that by the number of petitions that they’re filling out and also by the number of petitions that they’re collecting from other Floridians.”
Back at Williams Park, dozens of people strolling into the farmers market continue to show support for a constitutional amendment. A young dad named Leo was pushing a baby stroller when he stopped to sign the petition. He declined to share his last name, noting the heightened emotions surrounding abortion.
"It's a polarizing issue for sure, but it's a super impactful issue,” he said. “It makes a pretty big difference for not just the immediate society and women, but generations down the line they're going to look back at this time and either this country gave into apathy and just let it happen, or did something about it."
Once organizers collect the required signatures, Republican state Attorney General Ashley Moody will review the petition language. By Florida law, it must be clear and on a single topic.
To that end, Brenzel, of FPF, said the ballot language was carefully vetted to be “very clear and very precise.”
“We wanted to make sure that this language was as defensible as possible and that it met the standards that Florida set. We didn’t want to give anybody any reason to try to rule against this amendment,” Brenzel said.
If the Florida Supreme Court decides that it meets those standards, it will appear on the ballot and 60% of Floridians would then have to vote in favor for the state constitution to be amended.
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