A group of abortion rights activists in Grand Forks has launched an attempt to refer to North Dakota voters three controversial anti-abortion bills signed by the governor last week.

Gary Hangsleben of Grand Forks is chairman of a committee that hopes to put House Bill 1305, House Bill 1456 and Senate Bill 2305 to a vote. Requests were submitted to the North Dakota Secretary of State’s office Tuesday afternoon to have petitions approved for signature drives on the three laws.

Rep. Bette Grande, R-Fargo, primary sponsor of HB1305 and HB1456, said she’d heard rumblings of a referral since the bills had been signed into law.

“If they want to take these to a vote of the people, great, let’s have that vote,” Grande said.

Hangsleben said he and several others at a March 25 abortion rights rally in Grand Forks decided to begin work on referring the bills if they passed. He said the group began to enlist people who might be interested in helping gather signatures.

“We just thought we’d take the issue to the people,” Hangsleben said.

The morning after the rallies around the state, Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed the three bills into law.

The laws, pending legal challenges, would go into effect Aug. 1 and set North Dakota apart as the state with the strictest abortion laws in the nation. They include requirements to check for a fetal heartbeat, a ban on abortions after 20 weeks, a ban on abortions based on gender or genetic abnormalities and more stringent guidelines for physicians.

Hangsleben has participated in other signature-gathering efforts. He most recently helped gather signatures in the ballot measure effort to keep the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux nickname.

“It’s hard work, but it’s a very simple, straightforward process,” Hangsleben said of the referral process.

“I don’t think a lawsuit is going to have any impact to have them back down,” Hangsleben said of the idea of a court challenge to the new laws.

With a vote, he said, “Everybody can get involved, not just a few attorneys on each side. Thirteen to 15,000 people are going to get involved … so we can ask for 300,000 or 400,000 people to vote on it in a general election. You can’t ask for anything more democratic than that.”

Hangsleben said the committee members were meeting Tuesday evening in Grand Forks to begin planning the signature drive. He said they have between 100 and 150 people willing to circulate petitions in the Grand Forks area and they’re already organizing with others in Bismarck and Fargo.

The secretary of state’s office can approve the titles for the three petitions as early as next Tuesday, and April 11 at the latest.

If approved, each petition would require 13,452 signatures by midnight on June 24. That is 90 days after the legislation was filed with the secretary of state’s office.

Hangsleben said he expects the committee to raise money and get petition circulators involved fairly easily with strong support among university students and abortion rights groups across the state.

“I think it’s mostly the Democrats who would support this move … you might have a few dissensions on each side (of the aisle),” Hangsleben said. “I think the whole country is watching North Dakota right now.”

Although the laws drew emotional testimony from both sides when they went through the Legislature, he said he hopes the referral process will bring about a civil debate on both sides.

“It’s just gonna spread like wildfire,” Hangsleben said. “I’m sure it’s going to get quite vocal in the next few days, the next few weeks and the next few months.”

Grande pointed to the roughly two-thirds majority votes on the abortion legislation, and she said that after legalization of abortion in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the citizens of North Dakota voted by a solid majority to keep stringent abortion laws in place.

“The state of North Dakota is a pro-life state. It has been since territorial days and we will continue to be a pro-life state,” Grande said.

Grande said she thinks the people have already spoken through the Legislature, but if a statewide vote is needed to affirm the body’s decision, she welcomes it.

“This will give us an opportunity to talk about what’s actually in the bills, not what the media has to say about it or what a fringe group has to say about it,” Grande said.

Reach Nick Smith at 250-8255 or 223-8482 or at nick.smith@bismarcktribune.com.