LANSING, Mich. — An election board in Michigan is hearing from dozens of supporters and protesters ahead of a contentious vote Wednesday on whether a ballot initiative seeking to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution should go before voters in November.
The board’s verdict isn’t expected to be the last word on the proposed constitutional amendment, which aims to negate a 91-year-old state law that would ban abortion in all instances except to save the life of the mother. But the meeting drew hundreds of people, who packed the hearing room and overflow rooms for a chance to comment. Abortion opponents also protested outside.
Michigan’s 1931 law — which abortion opponents had hoped would be triggered by a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe vs. Wade in June — remains blocked after months of court battles. A state judge ruled Aug. 19 that Republican county prosecutors couldn’t enforce the ban, saying it was “in the public’s best interest to let the people of the great state of Michigan decide this matter at the ballot box.”
Both sides have indicated they will file challenges with the state’s Democrat-leaning Supreme Court if the decision goes against them.
The Bureau of Elections verified last Thursday that the ballot initiative petition contained enough valid signatures for the amendment to qualify for the ballot and recommended that the state Board of Canvassers approve the measure. The board does not always follow the bureau’s recommendations.
Abortion rights have become a powerful motivator for voters since Roe was overturned. In conservative Kansas, voters overwhelmingly defeated a ballot measure that would have allowed the Republican-controlled Legislature to tighten restrictions or ban the procedure outright, and the issue has swayed votes in special elections for Congress, including in a battleground district in upstate New York. Nationally, Democrats have seen an increase in fundraising since the Supreme Court decision.
Having abortion rights on the ballot in November would almost certainly be a boon for Democrats in Michigan, a swing state where voters will also be deciding whether Democrats keep control of statewide offices, including governor and secretary of state. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other Democrats have put abortion rights front and center in their campaigns, and after Republicans chose businesswoman Tudor Dixon as the GOP nominee for governor, Democrats released an ad blasting her strong opposition to abortion, including in cases of rape and incest.
The organization behind the abortion ballot initiative turned in over 700,000 petition signatures — a record number for any ballot initiative in the state — providing names, addresses and phone numbers that can be used as voter contacts during the campaign season.
Abortion opponents protested noisily outside as the meeting got underway Wednesday. Their muffled yells could be heard inside the hearing room, and the Republican board chairman at one point asked security to tell them to stop banging on the windows.
During the public comment period, Dr. Jessica Frost, an obstetrician and gynecologist in Lansing, told the board “we must restore the reproductive protections lost when Roe was overturned.”
Opponents said the ballot language was confusing. Several called abortion immoral and warned board members against approval.
“I can’t imagine a more important decision that you have to ever make in your life, because I know that you and I will kneel before Christ someday and answer for the decision you make today,” Billy Putman said.
The Michigan Board of Canvassers, comprising two Republicans and two Democrats, has become increasingly partisan in recent years.
The board made national headlines following the 2020 presidential election when one member, who has since resigned, abstained from voting to certify Joe Biden’s victory in the state. The other GOP board member, who voted to certify, wasn’t re-nominated by the state GOP party and was replaced by Tony Daunt, the board chairman.
Earlier this year, two leading candidates for the GOP nomination for governor were dropped from the primary ballot after the board deadlocked along partisan lines on whether too many fraudulent signatures on their nomination papers made them ineligible. A tie vote meant the candidates lost.
A deadlock in Wednesday’s vote would officially mean the initiative was rejected, but a final decision would most likely come from the Michigan Supreme Court. Groups have seven business days following the board’s decision to appeal to the high court and the ballot must be finalized by Sept. 9.
The board also is expected to decide Wednesday whether another initiative, to expand voting in the state, should make the fall ballot. The measure would expand voter rights by allowing nine days of in-person early voting, state-funded absentee ballot postage and drop boxes in every community.
Burnett contributed from Chicago.
Joey Cappelletti is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.