Anti-Abortion Activists Are Posing as Government Officials in South Dakota to Spread Ballot Measure Disinfo

Several voters say they received phone calls claiming to be from the secretary of state’s office trying to persuade them to revoke their support of an abortion rights petition.

Anti-Abortion Activists Are Posing as Government Officials in South Dakota to Spread Ballot Measure Disinfo
South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley (R) said that an anti-abortion group whose members are allegedly posing as government officials has committed no criminal wrongdoing. (Photo: Shutterstock)

On Monday, Amy Scott-Stoltz, president of the South Dakota League of Women Voters, received a phone call from someone who said they worked for the South Dakota Petition Integrity Committee and had gotten her information from the state secretary of state’s office. The caller asked Scott-Stoltz about her decision to sign a petition in support of a ballot measure that would enshrine a right to abortion through the first trimester in the state constitution.

“Getting a call like that in the middle of the day, I was a bit confused,” Scott-Stoltz told Jezebel. She couldn’t find information on the committee on the secretary of state’s website and ended the call. But later that day she learned the South Dakota Petition Integrity Committee is a new anti-abortion group campaigning against the ballot measure that is run by Republican state Rep. Jon Hansen, who’s also co-chair of the anti-abortion Life Defense Fund. Despite its official-sounding name, the group isn’t a government entity. Its volunteers have been calling voters who have signed their names in support of the measure, and have been insinuating that they work with the secretary of state’s office. The timing is not accidental: Earlier this month, 55,000 signatures were submitted to get the measure on the November ballot (nearly twice the required amount). And the goal is clear: Confuse—or intimidate—these abortion rights supporters so that they rescind their support.

Also on Monday, Secretary of State Monae Johnson’s office warned that a shady group was indeed calling individuals who signed in support of the measure. “Scammers are pushing the voters to challenge the Abortion Rights ballot measure petitions,” Johnson, a Republican, said in a statement. Her office also said it’s “working with law enforcement to investigate the claims.”

South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley (R) on Tuesday said his office had concluded that there is “no evidence of criminal wrongdoing after reviewing complaints and scripts used by the volunteers.” Hansen also denied to KELOLAND, a local news outlet, that volunteers with his group are falsely claiming to work for the secretary of state’s office; he said they are simply investigating whether voters who had signed the petition were coerced to do so under false premises: “Life Defense Fund has announced that we will be challenging the legal validity of the signatures obtained on the abortion amendment,” he said in an email to KELOLAND. 

Even if the attorney general has concluded there’s no law being broken here, this is still a supremely sketchy strategy being deployed by anti-abortion activists. Scott-Stoltz, who said she’s heard from several other people who got similar calls, described the calls to petition signatories like her as “harassment.” According to a Tuesday report in the South Dakota Searchlight, at least 700 voters have so far received these deceptive calls. Johnson’s office told KELOLAND on Tuesday evening that it was still receiving reports from voters about phone calls regarding the abortion measure, and said that voters reporting these messages describe the callers as “rude, pushy, and threatening.”

Rachel Soulek, director of the Division of Elections at the Office of the Secretary of State, said in an email to KELOLAND News on Monday that the deceptive calls are “coming from random numbers with a 605 area code,” the only area code in South Dakota. Soulek added, “Our office has not and would not ever make any such calls and we are working with law enforcement to investigate the claims.”

In a statement shared with Jezebel, Rick Weiland—co-founder of Dakotans for Health, which is the main sponsor of the abortion rights ballot measure—called Hansen’s and the Life Defense Fund’s antics “desperation, plain and simple.” 

“They are desperate to keep abortion off the ballot this fall and let the people decide,” Weiland said. He also said this strategy from opponents of the ballot measure “smells of voter intimidation and harassment.” 

KELOLAND News spoke to several voters who say they received calls from the South Dakota Petition Integrity Commission who claimed or suggested that they worked with the secretary of state’s office about what these calls entailed. “I thought it was somebody that was trying to help me make sure that my signature was on the petition and everything was fine with it,” one voter told the outlet. Another voter said that a woman “called me and told me she was a volunteer from the secretary of state’s office, and she was calling me on behalf of the South Dakota Petition Integrity Committee.” The caller then “asked if I remembered signing the petition for abortion rights, she asked me if I knew that I had signed a petition that would allow abortions up to the point of birth.” The family of a newsroom employee at KELOLAND said they’d also received a call from someone who claimed to work at the secretary of state’s office; the caller later said they were with the South Dakota Petition Integrity Commission. That family member said the caller asked them about their signature on the abortion measure and spoke in a “judgmental tone.”

The Searchlight spoke to a voter who said she received a voicemail from the Petition Integrity Commission that claimed it had “received” her name and information from the secretary of state. One Dakotans for Health volunteer told the outlet that she’d received a call from someone who implied they worked at the secretary of state’s office and asked whether she knew the ballot measure “allows for abortion up to birth.”

Scott-Stoltz emphasized to Jezebel that these tactics from anti-abortion activists are a consequence of a bill that Gov. Kristi Noem (R) signed into law earlier this year that allows people to remove their signatures from ballot measure petitions. “That makes it legal for these groups to call without restrictions on what they can or cannot say to me, without any transparency,” Scott-Stoltz said.

The proposed ballot measure in South Dakota would ensure abortion is legal under all circumstances in the first trimester of pregnancy, and allow some regulation by the state after this point. Under current law, South Dakota only allows exceptions to save the pregnant person’s life and threatens those in violation with prison time.

About a dozen other states, including Florida, Arizona, and Missouri, are currently set to either vote on abortion in November or are trying to finalize getting their measures on the ballot. In every state that’s voted directly on abortion since 2022, abortion rights have won. And because of that, Republican officials and anti-abortion groups have been doing everything they can to try to stop similar future votes, including resorting to straight-up deceit.

In Arizona, anti-abortion groups openly boasted about strategically harassing and surveilling reproductive rights organizers as they collected voter signatures. In Missouri, anti-abortion groups sent texts to voters lying that signature collectors are trying to steal their personal data. And in several states, anti-abortion politicians are lying that abortion rights ballot measures would create a right to abortion “until birth,” which is entirely false. As Dakotans for Health’s Rick Weiland pointed out, this is all rooted in desperation—anti-abortion groups know that forced pregnancy and birth are deeply unpopular.

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