Personhood proponents file suit to get on this year’s ballot

The Colorado Statesman

Proponents of a so-called “personhood” ballot initiative that seeks to ban abortion in Colorado by assigning constitutional rights to the unborn filed a legal challenge this week, asking a Denver District Court judge to overturn the secretary of state’s earlier ruling that the measure fell short of making the November ballot.

Secretary of State Scott Gessler’s office on Aug. 29 deemed the signatures gathered by proponents to be insufficient, thereby disqualifying the initiative for the 2012 fall ballot. Proponents had submitted 106,119 signatures on Aug. 6, but the secretary’s office found that the total valid signatures were only 82,246, falling short by 3,859.

Proponents filed their lawsuit on Thursday, insisting that Gessler’s office made errors in interpreting the law when invalidating signatures and suggesting that over 6,800 valid registered voters’ signatures were discounted when they should have been included.

“Unfortunately the secretary of state in a very, very strict process, applied a ‘perfect match’ rule to a lot of the signatures, and they just tossed out just barely enough signatures to put us under the limit,” said Gualberto Garcia Jones, legal analyst for Personhood USA.

Personhood proponents are also arguing that they were denied a 15-day cure period to make up lost or invalidated signatures because of a “frivolous” lawsuit brought by Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains earlier this year to the Colorado Supreme Court. The lawsuit challenged the title of the ballot initiative. Planned Parenthood lost the challenge and personhood proponents were allowed to move forward with their drive.

Sponsors say the lawsuit shortened their petition collecting time by about 60 days, which also cut short any time they would have for the cure process as outlined in Colorado law.

“The abortion industry delayed the process by two months. They filed a frivolous lawsuit, they’ve done this in the past, they know that this is just their ploy to have the delay,” said Susan Sutherland, director of the Colorado Personhood Coalition. She suggested that Planned Parenthood utilized a political strategy in bringing the case to the Supreme Court.

Crystal Clinkenbeard, spokeswoman for the No Personhood Campaign, acknowledged that opponents used every strategy possible in their efforts to thwart the personhood campaign, the third in recent years.

“This measure is bad for Coloradans, and so the coalition that opposed it is going to do everything we can at every stop of the way to try to protect Colorado families and women and keep the government out of our personal lives,” Clinkenbeard said.

The personhood coalition is suing under the First Amendment and the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, arguing free speech and equal protection, respectively, and is also seeking legal action under the Colorado Constitution.

“The secretary of state’s actions unconstitutionally deprived us of our fundamental right under the state and federal constitutions to the initiative process, which is core political speech,” said Jones. “After being denied the same timeframe that every other initiative received, and denied the opportunity to appear on the ballot, we have filed a writ of mandamus to ensure that our rights are recognized and the hard work of our volunteers is not dismissed.”

Proponents would ideally like to see a judge order the question placed on the November ballot. But state officials say the ballot certification deadline was Sept. 10. If a judge doesn’t order the question placed on the 2012 ballot, then proponents hope a judge will order it placed on the 2014 ballot.

A judge could also dismiss the entire case, which is Gessler’s preference.

“Our office went line-by-line through each entry. Consequently, these circulators had an exceptional acceptance rate of 78 percent, compared to Amendment 65, which was closer to 50 percent,” said secretary of state’s spokesman, Rich Coolidge.

Coolidge said if a judge were to order the initiative placed on the November ballot, it would cost taxpayers in excess of $2 million to reprint all the ballots.

“Not to mention how we would handle overseas voters who already have their ballots and some have even voted them,” Coolidge added.

Legislative Council Staff says it would cost an additional $685,000 to reprint and mail voter guides, known as the Blue Book.

Given the uphill battle, Clinkenbeard does not believe that the initiative will appear on this year’s ballot.

“The No Personhood Coalition is ready to fight this whenever it’s on the ballot, whether it’s 2012, 2014, or any time moving forward,” she said.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com