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Boone County Becomes Focus of Missouri Initiative Petition Campaigns Following Redistricting The 2022 Missouri congressional map split Boone County in half. Will it make a difference in the effort to get abortion on the ballot?

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Above image credit: Petitioners with Missourians for Healthy Families and Fair Wages unload dozens of boxes of signatures to deliver to the Secretary of State. (Annelise Hanshaw | Missouri Independent)
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5 minute read

Since being elected Boone County Clerk in 2018, Brianna Lennon’s job verifying initiative petition signatures has been pretty easy, with only a few hundred pages to sort through at most. 

That changed after state lawmakers cut her county in half when they redrew Congressional maps. 

In 2022, after long-fought battles and filibusters over the new congressional map that must be redrawn every decade, Missouri lawmakers ultimately decided to split Boone County and Columbia between the 3rd and 4th congressional districts.

As a result, Lennon’s office went from having a few hundred pages of signatures to verify to more than 15,600 pages across four campaigns this year. 

“We’ve definitely seen that circulators feel differently about Boone County, because we’ve gotten more petition pages than we’ve gotten in years,” Lennon said. “And that’s the case for all the petitions that have been circulated this year.” 

The increased workload for the Boone County Clerk’s office isn’t the only possible ramification of the new congressional map. By splitting Columbia — a Democratic stronghold and a population center — into two districts, some argue lawmakers inadvertently eased the path of initiative petitions that need enough signatures in at least six districts to get on the statewide ballot.

This dynamic could be especially important for a campaign seeking to restore abortion access in Missouri, allowing signature gathering resources to be focused on friendly territory of a college town instead of more rural parts of the state that tend to skew conservative.

Three of the four campaigns seeking to put issues on the ballot this year — enshrining abortion in the constitution, raising the minimum wage, legalizing sports wagering — turned in signatures in all eight of Missouri’s congressional districts. A campaign hoping to authorize a new casino near Lake of the Ozarks skipped the 6th and 8th districts.

“In their effort to stick it to Boone County, what they really did was they empowered Boone County to help issues qualify for the initiative petition,” said Stephen Webber, a Columbia Democrat running for state Senate and a former chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party. “If an (initiative petition) is successful, I think Boone County can be proud that we played a large role in making that happen.”

Not everyone is convinced the Boone County split will make much of a difference.

“Signature collecting campaigns are hard, and you’ve got to go find voters and you’ve got to find a lot of them,” said Sean Nicholson, a long-time progressive activist who has worked on multiple initiative petition campaigns. “It’s hard no matter what.”

While Columbia may have the appeal of being in two districts, Nicholson said that comes with the trade-off of having a lot of renters and students who may not be registered to vote in the county or who haven’t updated their address. 

Redistricting simply made campaigns rethink their strategies.

“The campaigns that win,” he said, “campaign everywhere.” 

‘Most Important Place for the Pro-Choice Movement’

In May, three citizen-led campaigns proposing constitutional changes turned in hundreds of boxes filled with thousands of pages of signatures to the Secretary of State’s Office to be verified. If each was successful in getting valid signatures from 8% of citizens in six of Missouri’s eight congressional districts, their issue will be on the statewide ballot later this year. 

But the effort to roll back Missouri’s near-total ban on abortion has gotten by far the most attention. 

In February, while speaking at the Boone County Democrats annual chili supper, Webber made a prediction for the “blue island in the sea of mid-Missouri red.”

“The most important place for the pro-choice movement in 2024 is Boone County, Missouri,” he said, referring specifically to the fact that it now sits in both the 3rd and 4th congressional districts.

According to records obtained by The Independent through Missouri’s Sunshine Law, the abortion initiative petition turned in the most pages of signatures from St. Louis County, followed by Jackson and St. Charles counties. 

Boone County yielded the sixth-highest page count. For the sports betting and casino petitions, it was the fourth-highest page count.

The number of signatures per county or per congressional district is not yet clear, only the number of signatures pages turned in. Those pages can include up to 10 signatures. 

Lennon said Boone County is a compact population center surrounded by rural counties. Now that the county is split in half, the return on investment for initiative petition campaigns is more worthwhile.

‘It’s Hard No Matter What’

Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, a Republican from Columbia, may have been one of the only lawmakers thinking about the initiative petition process in 2022 as he opposed a 7-1 map supported by Missouri Right to Life that would have split the Kansas City district, including it with rural counties in the hopes of flipping those seats for Republicans.

At the time, Rowden said splitting up more populous, liberal areas could make it easier for left-leaning groups to get abortion measures on the ballot by taking advantage of districts’ urban centers.

Rowden could not be reached for comment. 

The 7-1 proposal pushed by the Senate’s conservative caucus was ultimately defeated in favor of a 6-2 map that maintained six safe Republican districts and two Democratic districts in Kansas City and St. Louis.

State Sen. Andrew Koenig, a Republican from Manchester and a member of the Senate Freedom Caucus, said he did not recall the initiative petition campaigns factoring into his decision to vote against the final 7-1 map.

“Honestly just getting something passed was the main goal at that point in time,” Koenig said. “There was a lot of disagreement amongst different senators on how to draw those maps, and so when it came to the (initiative petition) process, that at least never entered my mind on the redistricting part.” 

Koenig added that he thought Rowden’s comments were “a talking point,” lacking merit. 

Whether any of the initiative petition campaigns end up on the ballot remains to be seen, but there’s no denying Boone County is getting a lot more attention this year. 

Marc Ellinger, a Republican and former attorney for the 2022 campaign to legalize recreational marijuana, said there’s certainly an assumption, whether right or wrong, that Boone County is going to be “more receptive to abortion rights and therefore more likely to find willing signers.”

Based on initial page counts, the abortion campaign appears to have focused the least amount of its effort on the 6th District in northern Missouri and the 8th District in southeast Missouri. Ellinger said that’s likely because Clay County, which includes some of Kansas City, is now in the 5th District, and because the 8th District is too rural. 

It makes sense for campaigns to flock to populous areas, said Eric Fey, Democratic director of elections for the St. Louis County Election Board. 

There are also challenges. For example, Fey said, in St. Louis, registered voters often don’t know if they live in the city or county, so they will sign the wrong sheet, invalidating the rest of the signatures on it. 

The most accurate petition pages they see often come from circulators outside polling places on election day, Fey said, or those who go door-to-door with a list of registered voters in hand. It’s what can make collecting signatures in more rural areas with lots of homeowners end up with a higher success rate of valid signatures.

Plans to Challenge Abortion Petition

While many Missouri leaders have been speaking about the abortion campaign as if it’s already secured a spot on the ballot, Sam Lee, a longtime anti-abortion activist and lobbyist, isn’t conceding yet. 

He is part of a campaign called Missouri Stands with Women, established to fight the abortion coalition. While they’ve been vastly out-fundraised by the abortion rights campaign, Lee said his group has other tactics in mind. 

Lee pointed out that campaigns with similar signature totals have either failed or been close to failure in recent years. 

In 2022, a ranked choice voting ballot initiative collected more than 303,000 signatures but did not meet the required signature total in any congressional district. The campaign to legalize recreational marijuana collected nearly 400,000 signatures but nearly missed out in the 6th district with just 806 more than required. 

The abortion campaign announced on May 3 that they turned in 380,159 signatures from every county in Missouri. A breakdown of how many signatures came from each district, which will ultimately determine if they met the threshold needed to qualify, is being determined by each county’s election authorities now. 

If the signatures are verified as sufficient by the Secretary of State’s Office, anti-abortion groups still plan to look at the signatures independently, Lee said. During the Midwest March for Life earlier this month, Susan Klein, executive director with Missouri Right to Life, said they plan to make sure any names she says were scratched out by people who regretted signing are not counted.

“We’re going to scrutinize these and leave all our options open,” Lee said Wednesday. “If we have to file a lawsuit to have courts determine it should not be on the ballot if it’s determined to be a sufficient number of signatures, we’re willing to do that.”

Anna Spoerre covers reproductive health care for the Missouri Independent, where this story first appeared. Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

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