Former Democratic state Rep. Beth Kerttula holds up a sign reading "Vot No Con Con," during a Saturday rally at the Dimond Courthouse Plaza in Juneau. Opposition to a constitutional convention, which could alter the Alaska State Constitution to allow for banning abortions was a frequent topic during the protest. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Constitutional convention ballot question in November becomes focus in Alaska’s abortion fight

Abortion rights supporters urge ‘no’ votes on question, while abortion opponents seek changes to constitution

By Lisa Phu

Alaska Beacon

With the overturning of Roe, reproductive rights advocates in Alaska are encouraging voters to vote no on a constitutional convention during the general election this coming November, while abortion opponents are encouraging voters to vote yes.

The right to have an abortion in Alaska is protected through the state constitution’s provision on privacy, as recognized by the Alaska Supreme Court in 1997. This November, voters will be asked whether or not to call a constitutional convention, which would pave the way for changing the constitution and potentially taking that protection for abortion away.

During a Rally for Reproductive Justice in Juneau on Saturday, voting no on the constitutional convention question was a front and center issue.

“Every 10 years, our great Constitution requires a vote out of all of us on whether we want a constitutional convention,” former Democratic state Rep. Beth Kerttula said to a crowd of several hundred people outside the Dimond Courthouse.

Kerttula called the ballot question “a sneaky thing” because “it sounds kind of good, like, ‘Well, yeah, let’s get a good look at this and see what we need to do and are there things we need to change?’” But, she said Alaska has “a great constitution.”

Kerttula said, “if you care about equal rights to education, to health care, and if you care about the right to choice, vote no.”

The crowd followed her remarks with a “vote no” chant.

During his speech at the rally, State Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, encouraged the crowd to vote no on a constitutional convention, saying Alaska has an “explicit right to privacy in our constitution” as well as “judges who are chosen on merit, not on politics.”

“Here in Alaska, those judges have read the rules, they’ve read the constitution, they’ve looked at the world and they’ve said, ‘No, your right to privacy includes a decision when or whether you’re going to become a parent, and the decision to choose a perfectly safe and effective medical procedure, if that’s what’s right for you,’” he said. “Folks, as long as we can keep their mitts off the Alaska Constitution, it’s going to stay that way in our state.”

Nancy Courtney is a board member of Juneau Pro-Choice Coalition, which organized the June 25 rally. She said voting no on the constitutional convention in the November general election is included in its fundraising letter to supporters.

“That’s one of the biggest fears that we have is that it’s going to open up Pandora’s box if we have a constitutional convention,” Courtney said.

Potential changes to constitution

In 2021, Palmer Sen. Shelley Hughes sponsored Senate Joint Resolution 4, which proposed an amendment to the Alaska Constitution relating to abortion.

The resolution would’ve amended Article 1 of the constitution to add a new section that says, “To protect human life, nothing in this constitution may be construed to secure or protect a right to an abortion or require the State to fund an abortion.”

It passed out of the Health and Social Services Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee and didn’t go any further. It never made it to the Senate or House floors to get the two-thirds vote of each body it would’ve needed to get on a ballot. But this is language that Jim Minnery wants to see taken up during a constitutional convention.

Minnery is a president of Alaska Family Action, a nonprofit Christian public policy organization. He said Hughes’ resolution is “simply clarifying the neutrality of the state constitution.”

The Alaska Supreme Court in 1997 recognized that “reproductive rights are fundamental, and that they are encompassed within the right to privacy expressed in Article 1, Section 22 of the Alaska Constitution … These fundamental reproductive rights include the right to an abortion.”

Minnery said the court’s interpretation of the constitution was “made up out of whole cloth.”

“We believe firmly that the Supreme Court of Alaska interpreted the privacy clause in a manner that wasn’t at all meant by the founding fathers when they put the privacy clause in there, (which) has absolutely nothing to do with abortion.”

Minnery said, in November, he would be voting yes to the constitutional convention question and is encouraging Alaskans across the state to do the same. In addition to protecting “innocent, pre-born lives,” Minnery wants a constitutional convention because he supports reforming the judicial selection process to be more like the federal system.

“The governor should have the ability to be able to appoint people who are aligned with their belief system and how they believe jurisprudence should be carried out,” Minnery said.

Currently, when appointing justices to the Alaska Supreme Court, the governor must choose from a list of two or more nominees compiled by the Alaska Judicial Council. The Alaska Judicial Council is an independent state commission.

Ultimately, Minnery said the issue of abortion and safeguards around it should be decided by the people through their elected representatives who pass legislation.

Constitutional convention question

Every 10 years, the state constitution requires the lieutenant governor to place the question “Shall there be a Constitutional Convention?” on a general election ballot, if a convention hasn’t been held. Alaska hasn’t held a constitutional convention since 1955-1956, when the state constitution was developed.

Voters will be asked the question during the upcoming general election in November. A “yes” vote supports holding a state constitutional convention. A “no” vote opposes holding a convention.

If the majority of voters vote no, the question will be asked again in another 10 years. If the majority votes yes, what comes next is a multi-year process, Josh Applebee with the lieutenant governor’s office said.

“The process could take as long as four-plus years or, depending on the Legislature, it could be as short as, say, two years,” Applebee said.

The Legislature would be responsible for outlining the delegate selection process.

According to the constitution, “delegates to the convention shall be chosen at the next regular statewide election, unless the legislature provides for the election of the delegates at a special election.”

The next regular statewide election after this November isn’t until the primary election in August 2024.

Once delegates are selected, the convention would be held. After the convention takes place, amendments or revisions to the constitution must be ratified by voters in another election. The constitution doesn’t specify which election.

Lisa Phu covers justice, education, and culture for the Alaska Beacon. Previously, she spent eight years as an award-winning journalist, reporting for the Juneau Empire, KTOO Public Media, KSTK, and Wrangell Sentinel. This article originally appeared online at Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government.

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