Abortion rights won't be on the Arizona ballot in November as signature drive comes up short

Mary Jo Pitzl
Arizona Republic

An effort to ensure abortion rights in Arizona failed to get enough signatures to get on the November ballot, but supporters say they've tapped into a vein of voter activism that could fuel a similar effort in 2024.

The Right to Reproductive Freedom Act would have left matters from birth control to abortion in the hands of women and their doctors, and would have barred any government efforts to penalize or restrict any licensed medical professional who provide services involving reproductive rights.

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The ballot drive sprang up in the aftermath of the leak in early May of a draft U.S. Supreme Court ruling on abortion. By mid-May, the petition drive was launched to collect the minimum 356,467 signatures needed to qualify for the Nov. 8 ballot.

On Thursday's deadline to submit signatures, the committee pressing the ballot initiative said it had fallen short of that goal, saying it had gathered more than 175,000 signatures in 61 days.

"This is the largest volunteer-driven ballot measure campaign in the history of our state — and we are only just beginning," Dr. Victoria Fewell said of the campaign's more than 3,000 volunteers. "This may have started from a moment, but it is growing into a lasting statewide movement."

Fewell, an OB-GYN in Tucson, is chair of Arizonans for Reproductive Freedom.

Support inspires confidence

The petition drive averaged 2,700 signatures a day, a pace that outstripped the efforts of other citizen initiatives filed Thursday and, organizers said, gives a glimpse of what might be possible in the next election cycle.

Fewell pointed to Michigan, where an abortion rights measure qualified for the ballot with 800,000 signatures gathered over a nearly two-year period.

The official Supreme Court ruling, issued June 24, overturned Roe v. Wade and turbocharged the public response to the petition drive.

Daily traffic to the campaign's website jumped 61% on the day of the ruling, and climbed even higher over the July 4 holiday weekend, organizers said. It also added to the lines at the numerous "depots," where the campaign was collecting signatures.

Terry Goddard was serving as a notary last weekend at Changing Hands bookstore, a popular spot for initiative campaigns to seek voter signatures.

"I've never seen anything like this, it’s phenomenal," said Goddard, a veteran of numerous citizen initiative drives. People were drawn to the bookstore to sign the Reproductive Freedom petition, but they didn't stop there, he said.

“Once they signed reproductive health, they’d say ‘What else do you have?'" said Goddard, co-chairman of a ballot initiative to require disclosure of unnamed contributors to candidate campaigns.

His campaign benefited from this late surge of voter interest, he said, giving the Voters' Right to Know measure far more than the minimum signatures needed to qualify for the Nov. 8 ballot.

Normally, the sales pitch for the initiative, which seeks to ban so-called "'dark money," is lengthy, he said.

"They were signing before before I was finished speaking," he said. "These were people with high awareness, I’d say, but they weren’t active."

They are now, he said.

The Free and Fair Elections Act also got a late bump from voter interest in the Reproductive Rights Act.

"That was a huge lift for us," said Stacy Pearson, spokeswoman for the wide-ranging elections bill. That measure also submitted far more signatures than required to qualify for the ballot.

Pearson said there was a mutual interest there: The Free and Fair Elections Act has provisions that protect ballot access for citizen initiatives, something that should help the abortion-rights drive if they make another attempt at the ballot in 2024.

Looking toward 2024 ballot

Shasta McManus, treasurer of the reproductive freedom campaign, said 2024 is squarely in their sights.

"This campaign will not stop until abortions are once again legal and accessible across Arizona," McManus said. "Since June 24, Arizona has been operating under a law written when the Civil War was still raging and Arizona was not yet a state. This is barbaric and unacceptable and underlines the urgency of this movement."

Evan Hutchison, campaign manager, said the six-week drive showed the power of motivated citizen volunteers.

Relying on volunteers allowed the campaign to avoid some of the barriers lawmakers have approved in recent years, such as requiring that paid circulators be compensated on an hourly, as opposed to per-signature, basis. That change drove up the cost of initiative drives.

“What we learned is you can have a viable, volunteer driven petition drive and you don’t have to pay $30 a signature," Hutchison said.

The campaign spent about $100,000 on paid petition circulators, he said, but most of the signatures came from volunteers who were connected via social media to locations where they could pick up and drop off petition sheets. 

Matt Heinz, a Tucson doctor who helped organize the campaign, said the campaign's tactics could help other efforts, such as running a citizen initiative to allow people to sign initiative and referendum petitions online. Candidates can gather signatures this way, but lawmakers have resisted bills from Democrats to extend the process to citizen drives.

Reach the reporter at and follow her on Twitter @maryjpitzl.

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