By Alice Miranda Ollstein

PHOENIX, Arizona — The anti-abortion movement, reeling from a string of state-level losses, has a new goal in Arizona — dissuade voters from putting abortion on the 2024 ballot.

As abortion rights groups race to collect more than 400,000 signatures by July to put a measure protecting access to the procedure before voters in November, Arizona conservatives are mobilizing early to correct what they see as one of their biggest mistakes over the last two years: waiting too long to jump into the fray.

The effort to defeat Ohio’s abortion-rights measure last November, for example, didn’t launch until September, and, by then, the anti-abortion campaign “found that most people had made up their minds already,” said Jeremiah Wilkerson, a Tucson-based anti-abortion activist who drove to Phoenix to attend Friday’s March for Life and knock on doors. “For everyone else that they tried to educate, it was kind of too late.”

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Abortion opponents have launched campaigns nearly everywhere abortion could be on the November ballot — including in ArkansasFloridaNebraska, and South Dakota — aimed at convincing voters that the issue should not be subject to a popular vote. But they’re leaning particularly hard on the “decline to sign” strategy in Arizona because there they lack the policies and levers of power conservatives are using in other states — from a Republican attorney general willing to challenge the ballot measure in court to a legislative supermajority eager to change the rules — to make it harder for proposed amendments to qualify for the ballot.

The activists are deploying everywhere signatures are gathered — making their case at festivals, libraries, big box parking lots and coffee shops across Arizona. Some are simply trying to reach voters with an anti-abortion message before the other side does. Others are turning to more confrontational methods: tracking the locations of signature-gatherers on a private Telegram channel, filming them, interrupting their work, and calling security to get them removed from high-traffic spots around town.

“We will make sure no one will get approached to sign without hearing the other side of the story,” said Chanel Prunier, who leads Students for Life’s electoral advocacy arm. She called her decline-to-sign volunteers going door-to-door across the state the “ground troops” of the anti-abortion movement.

At the annual Melrose Street Fair in Phoenix on Saturday, three men — a father-son team and their friend — planted themselves just a few feet in front of a booth set up by Healthcare Rising, one of many groups collecting signatures for the abortion rights referendum.

Wedged between vintage cars, carnival games, food trucks, and vendors hawking crafts, they stood for hours holding poster boards featuring a giant stop sign and block letters reading, “Signing supports abortion up to birth.” As fair-goers lined up to sign, they pleaded with them to reconsider, arguing that language in the measure allowing abortions later in pregnancy if there’s a threat to the life or health of the mother is too extreme.

“There are things that shouldn’t be voted on,” Jacob Minic, one of the demonstrators, told POLITICO. “When it comes to extreme moral issues like this one, I don’t think it should be on the ballot.”

Most ignored them. Some cursed at them. Some stopped to debate. Just a few politely listened. Over the course of the afternoon, despite their efforts, more than 200 people signed the petition, and some said the protesters made them more determined to do so.

“I want a woman’s right to health care to be on the ballot in the state of Arizona,” Phoenix resident Jonathan Quinn told POLITICO. “If I could find a cop I’d report them,” he added of the anti-abortion demonstrators, who he accused of “interference and intimidation.”

Abortion opponents’ talking points in Arizona are nearly identical to those deployed in past state initiative fights — with a focus on abortions later in pregnancy and parental consent for minors seeking abortion. But after watching abortion rights referendums win overwhelmingly in every state that has held such a vote since the fall of Roe, they’re using an array of new tactics to try to nip the proposed amendment in the bud.

Some have begun door-knocking and tabling months ahead of the deadline to qualify for the ballot — urging people not to sign and, if they already have, to ask the Secretary of State’s Office to have their signature removed. (An aide to Secretary of State Adrian Fontes told POLITICO that no one has revoked their signature as of Monday.)

Others are pushing Catholic priests and other religious leaders to denounce the ballot initiative from the pulpit and counsel parishioners against signing. There are also plans in the works for “pep rallies” with free food and music in Latino communities, and a “dorm storm” targeting college students.

“We need to speak to that individual — moderate, independent — who maybe thinks the woman has the right to choose, but thinks this ballot initiative goes too far,” said Ashley Trussell, the chair of Arizona Right to Life, one of several groups leading the decline to sign campaign. “Our prayer is that it doesn’t even reach the ballot.”

Thousands of abortion rights canvassers — paid and volunteer — began gathering signatures across Arizona last fall. After crossing the quarter-million threshold in January, well ahead of schedule, the campaigns’ leaders say the decline to sign efforts are failing, and may even be backfiring.

“In some cases, it attracts more attention to our petition gatherers,” said Chris Love, a senior advisor for Arizona for Abortion Access. “Folks see something going on and they want to figure out what’s happening, they want to check it out. And a lot of them intentionally go to sign at that point.”

That appeared to be the case at the Melrose Street Fair on Saturday.

But Thomas Anchin, who joined the effort to stop the ballot initiative along with his father after hearing a presentation at their Catholic church, told POLITICO that he remains confident they are “planting seeds” so even people who sign the petition might vote no in the fall.

Another tactic some hope will pay off later this year: quizzing signature-gatherers about the amendment and taping their answers. If they misrepresent some aspect of the measure — intentionally or inadvertently — the recording can be presented as evidence that all the signatures that volunteer gathered are tainted by misinformation and invalid.

“We’re trying to record, we’re trying to take video, because there’s a lot of false statements that have been made by these petitioners,” Trussell said.

Arizona for Abortion Access has coached canvassers, when this happens, to offer the person the text of the amendment to read for themselves and thank them for their time. The abortion rights coalition is also working to gather double the number of signatures required — close to 800,000 — in case any of conservatives’ challenges prove successful.

“I don’t think it’s having much of an effect on us right now,” Love said of the decline to sign campaign. “If they thought that their position was so strong, they wouldn’t be engaging in these kinds of activities. If they thought they had the support of Arizona voters, they wouldn’t bother.”

Still, abortion opponents’ new tactics have Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes “very concerned.” The Democrat elected in 2022 told POLITICO her office has received reports of “decline to sign” actions that she feels border on threatening and intimidating abortion rights canvassers.

“Obviously there’s a balance between free speech rights and the rights of the folks who are collecting the signatures,” she said in an interview. “But if there’s any harassment that crosses the line, I want people to know that we will aggressively oppose those efforts and prosecute anyone who engages in violence or threats against the people who are collecting signatures.”

As in many other red and purple states considering ballot measures, Arizona abortion opponents are also calling on elected officials to help them scuttle the proposed ballot measure.

But Republican state Sen. Shawnna Bolick, who represents a swing district just north of Phoenix, told POLITICO that Republicans in the divided Legislature don’t have “an appetite to really do much this year,” and are unlikely to pass either additional abortion limits or measures restricting the ballot initiative process.

“I don’t think there’s gonna be anything to counter it,” she said.

Bolick, one of a couple dozen lawmakers who signed a pledge drafted by Arizona Right to Life vowing to “oppose the effort underway to change the Arizona Constitution” and “work to defend unborn children through pro-life legislation,” argued that the state’s pro-abortion rights governor Democrat Katie Hobbs would likely veto such laws. So she — and many fellow GOP lawmakers — are doing their own decline-to-sign work while campaigning for reelection.

“We’re knocking on doors, talking to people, emailing folks,” she said. “And whenever people start really diving in and looking at it they’re like, ‘Well, that’s extreme.’ And it is extreme. I mean, you’re basically going to murder somebody.”

Arizona Right to Life, It Goes Too Far, Moms for Arizona, Center for Arizona Policy, Students for Life and other groups working to thwart the proposed amendment see each person they convince not to sign, each time they disrupt signature gathering, as a victory. But the work is grueling, resource-intensive, and has no guarantee of success.

On Friday afternoon, a handful of local college students volunteering with Students for Life’s “Standing With You” campaign wound their way around the sleepy cul-de-sacs of southern Glendale, knocking on doors in an attempt to turn voters against the proposed referendum.

At most houses, no one answered. After more than an hour, they talked to a man who had not heard of the referendum, and eagerly accepted their flyers denouncing it. Several blocks later, they talked to Mary, a retired nurse and great-grandmother who declined to share her last name out of fear of sparking a fight with her anti-abortion family members. To the students’ dismay, Mary declared her staunch support for the ballot initiative, saying she wants state officials to be cut out of abortion decisions.

“I just think we need to leave this to the medical profession,” she said. “That’s my bottom line.”

Yet she hadn’t signed a petition, and appeared to waver when Heather Litchfield, an organizer with Students for Life, told her that because the ballot measure uses the term “health care professional” rather than “physician,” it would allow chiropractors, veterinarians and dentists to perform abortions. Asked how she felt about the amendment after hearing that information, Mary quipped: “Not better.”

Attorney General Mayes called this talking point “absurd” and “ludicrous.”

“There’s just no truth to that,” she said. “When you look at the language of the amendment, abortion would still be regulated just like every other medical procedure.”

Anti-abortion groups’ faith-based outreach has also been a mixed bag.

Some church leaders, including the Catholic diocese of Tucson, have publicly backed the “decline to sign movement.” But multiple speakers at the Friday March for Life outside the state capitol complained that most clergy are “not using their platforms to speak out on this issue,” calling the silence from churches “deafening.”

“Christians, stop being so timid,” Garrett Riley, the executive director of the Arizona Life Coalition, scolded the crowd, which was heavily comprised of children in school uniforms. “And ministry leaders, I know it’s uncomfortable, but we need to see and hear more from you.”

Though church outreach has been slow to ramp, and though polls show that slightly more Catholic adults in the state prefer abortion to remain legal in most or all cases, Arizona conservatives see winning over the state’s more than 1 million Catholic voters as crucial to their success.

“We do not have the $100 million dollars Planned Parenthood has, but we have churches, we have people, we have word of mouth,” said Susan Haugland, a volunteer with Arizona Right to Life leading the faith-based decline to sign push. “As long as we get the truth out there, we think the truth will win.”

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