Expert: Colorado ‘Personhood’ Unlikely to Make Ballot

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Expert: Colorado ‘Personhood’ Unlikely to Make Ballot

Wendy Norris

The latest effort to effectively ban abortion and contraception in Colorado may not qualify for the November ballot.

The latest attempt to place a state constitutional amendment before Colorado voters to effectively ban abortion may not qualify for the November ballot.

At a press conference Friday, Personhood Colorado leaders announced they would submit 79,817 petition signatures to state election officials. That’s just 3,770 signatures more than 76,047 required — a slim five percent margin which a local campaign expert says is unlikely to hold.

Tyler Chafee, senior associate with RBI Strategies and Research, said, "There is very little chance that voters will be seeing this measure on the 2010 ballot."

State initiatives generally try to collect 30 percent more signatures than required to cover the expected names that are disqualified because they are not registered voters. Chafee predicts the latest attempt by anti-choice activists will fall about 13,000 signatures short. He based his estimate on the same signature approval rate, a relatively high 79 percent ratio, on the group’s 2008 petitions. In that campaign, more than 131,000 names were submitted to the Colorado Secretary of State, almost double the required number and 50,000 more than this go-around. Both campaigns used a similar volunteer petition circulation effort that focused on conservative church congregations over a six month period.

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Though the 2008 campaign was successful in getting on the ballot it lost in a 73-27 landslide. And that defeat likely impacted the present campaign’s signature gathering process.

"When something goes down as hard as "personhood" went down last time, even with the small number of voters it takes to get something on the ballot, they really start to wonder ‘why are we doing this again?,’" said Chafee.

Now, the secretary of state’s office now has 30 days to verify that the petition signatures are from legally registered voters. If the group meets the threshold, voters will be asked to determine whether a fertilized egg should be defined as a "person" with inalienable civil rights. Should the campaign come up short, proponents will have an additional 15 days to secure the remaining signatures needed.

But based on the daily signature gathering rate over the 172 days they circulated petitions through Friday’s deadline, the group would have to get new names at twice that clip to reach the estimated 13,000 deficit within two weeks. An awfully tall order for an all-volunteer group with little money but not entirely out of the realm of possibility.

Yet, the down-to-the-wire petition campaign wasn’t the only difference between this latest effort and the more popular and better funded 2008 ballot push dubbed "Colorado for Equal Rights."

The victory party, hosted again at the Knights of Columbus Hall in downtown Denver, attracted about 25 supporters, mostly white men. Last year’s event  brought in three times as many people.

Keith Mason kicked off the event using cardboard boxes filled with petitions as a podium. Mason is the co-founder of Personhood USA, the national nonprofit group that rose from the ashes of the 2008 campaign where he served as outreach director and managed the petition collection process. 

"I am just ecstatic over this new budding movement and the refocusing and revival of the prolife movement," said Mason while his toddler daughters played underneath a nearby folding table in the mostly empty hall. He claimed that 40 states are now working to place "personhood" amendments before voters this year.

Conspicuously absent among the attendees, however, were clergy, politicians, throngs of media and the gruesome "Truth Truck" plastered with poster-sized images of stillborn babies that took part in the 2008 campaign event. Wichita-native Mason previously drove the infamous gross-out-mobile for Operation Rescue before moving to the Denver in 2007 to help with the first-in-the-nation attempt to assert zygote rights.

While Mason tried to strike an upbeat note for the group’s first 2010 state ballot test, the gathering took on a decidedly strange and nastier tone after he introduced Colorado ballot co-sponsors, Gualberto Garcia Jones and Leslie Hanks. During their turns at the stacked box podium, each took verbal swipes at Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains communications director Monica McCafferty, who quietly watched the event from the back of the room, Rewire and this reporter.

Jones began his remarks with a rambling speech about Abraham Lincoln and the recent miscarriage suffered by his wife who required a routine D&C procedure to "get all the material out" as he referred to it.

The gathered crowd shifted uncomfortably in their chairs as Jones graphically described the tragic emergency room visit and its impact on his young family, which includes a toddler and a seventh-month-old son.

Jones suddenly pivoted back to the campaign at-hand claiming that "Planned Parenthood and the ACLU are shaking in their boots. They see this army of faithful pro-life warriors coming back for round two."

His comments made without any apparent sense of irony that the two organizations he criticized have been at the forefront of ensuring that the private health care decisions he and his wife sadly had to make after the loss of their child are available to one and all.

Gathering steam, Jones proceeded to call me out personally, and inaccurately, as an "abortion advocate" and for reporting on the "personhood" campaign’s concealed intention in its ballot language to ban abortion, contraception, fertility care and embryonic stem cell research. The crowd roared with approval and began singing "Onward Christian Soldiers.

Hanks, also a member of the 2008 campaign team, borrowed a riff from Sarah Palin’s much-maligned appearance at the recent Tea Party convention where she wrote notes on her hand.

"I hope nobody minds but I did bring my crib notes with me today," Hanks said as she flashed her palm at the supporters. "In case you can’t see this it says 23 + 23 = 46. One precious new human being made in God’s image. That’s embryology 101 for those egg-as-a-person supporters who might be in the audience." 

Hanks referred to the stacks of petitions as a "love offering" to unborn babies. She then thanked Focus on the Family Founder Dr. James Dobson who she claimed signed her petition. 

For the uninitiated that’s quite the kiss-and-make up tale.

Hanks previously led the Colorado Right to Life chapter that was delisted by its national parent organization in 2007 after the group ran several full page newspaper ads demanding that Dobson repent for not pushing a harder anti-abortion line. Later, several key members of the personhood campaign were arrested, fined and jailed for trespassing while staging a 2008 sit-in protest at the Focus on the Family headquarters after Dobson endorsed GOP presidential candidate John McCain, whom the group opposed.

Rev. Bob Enyart and two others arrested at Focus remain high profile campaign volunteers and were publicly recognized by Hanks in her remarks.

To cap off the growing sense of anger at the likely failure of the issue to make the ballot, three "personhood" supporters followed Jeremy Shaver, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado , outside the hall following the press conference.

As the trio jeered him while he was interviewed by the media on the sidewalk, Shaver recapped his organization’s continued opposition to the measure because "Coloradans want to be able to make their own personal, private medical decisions" without government intrusion.

The Alliance was a member of a broad cross-section of religious, health care and civic organizations that formed Protect Families, Protect Choice, the primary opposition group to the 2008 "personhood" campaign.

The coalition wasted no time denouncing the latest effort.

Rev. Dr. Phil Campbell, a board member of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado and Director of Ministry Studies at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, said in a statement:

"The personhood amendment is an overt attempt to insert a particular religious definition of life in the Colorado Constitution. We do not believe state law should be based on a religious belief or doctrine. This amendment would threaten religious freedom in Colorado and take away a woman’s right to make decisions about her own health care with her doctor, her family, and her God without government intrusion."

Amanda Mountjoy, Colorado chapter president of Republican Majority for Choice, wrote:

"Changing our state constitution is a serious matter that should not be manipulated by fringe special interest groups with a narrow, single-issue agenda. Our state constitution is not the place or the vehicle to mandate private health care decisions, which are often some of the most complicated choices facing families." 

Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains medical director Dr. Savita Ginde, noted:

"The overwhelming majority of Colorado voters (1.7 million), including voters in every Colorado county, rejected the ‘definition of person’ initiative in 2008.  It was bad medicine then.  It is bad medicine now: it could ban all abortions, even those necessary to save the life and health of the woman. By inserting a non-medical, non-scientific definition into the state constitution, this initiative will have far-reaching consequences on important life decisions in areas of practice that go far beyond the issue of abortion." 

Kenia Morales of Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights, reiterated:

"In 2008, Latinos in Colorado rejected the personhood amendment and told us loud and clear that even if they would choose not have an abortion themselves, they respect and support other families’ decisions to do what is right for them. Families should be in charge of their own health care decisions. The personhood amendment would force the government to make these decisions instead.  The personhood amendment goes too far and threatens our families and our future."

A decision on the outcome of the petition certification is expected from the Colorado Secretary of State by March 14.