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Michigan abortion, early-voting measures off ballot for now. Court fight next.

Michigan Board of State Canvassers Chair Tony Daunt was one of two Republicans on the board who voted Wednesday against certifying ballot issues to expand voting and abortion rights. (Screenshot)
  • Board of State Canvassers deadlock 2-2 and fail to certify abortion rights and voting proposals for November
  • Challengers raised concerns about ballot initiative format, including spacing issues
  • Lawsuits coming next. Michigan Supreme Court likely to decide issue

LANSING — Two proposals to amend the state constitution to protect abortion rights and allow for early voting are almost certainly headed to court, after a state election board on Wednesday failed to place the measures on the Nov. 8 ballot.

The Board of State Canvassers is tasked with certifying ballot measures, but split 2-2 along party lines, failing to move forward the Reproductive Freedom for All initiative as well as Promote the Vote, which would allow nine days of early voting, public funding of absentee ballot postage and continue state law allowing registered voters to cast ballots without ID if they sign an affidavit.

Both Republicans on the board voted against the measures during the eight-hour board meeting Wednesday, despite a recommendation from state staffers to place them for the ballot.

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Republicans objected to formatting issues on the abortion ballot measure which made words run together, while they argued the voting measure failed to disclose that it would repeal several sections of the state constitution.

While the decision won’t be the last word in the contentious fight, conservatives cheered their momentary victory Wednesday.

“The Board of State Canvassers today did the right thing by refusing to insert into our constitution the gibberish proposed by advocates for this extreme amendment,” Christen Pollo of Citizens to Support MI Families and Children said in a statement.

“The Michigan Supreme Court should support this move to protect our constitution from their vandalism as well.”

She announced the group is launching a new TV ad campaign, warning that “sponsors of the abortion amendment want you to put 60 mistakes into your constitution permanently.”

Michigan GOP spokesperson Gustavo Portela cheered the rejection of Promote the Vote, claiming it is designed to “give Democrats an unfair advantage” because it would fund absentee drop boxes in cities. 

Democrats and supporters of the measures cried foul.

“Michiganders of all stripes were disappointed today by the Republican members of the State Board of Canvassers who claimed a form objection to mask what was truly a content objection to the ‘Reproductive Freedom for All’ petition,” Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes said in a statement.  “They have thwarted the will of over 700,000 Michigan electors that signed the petition, with no illusion or confusion as to what they were signing.”

Nancy Wang, executive director of voting rights group Voters Not Politicians, said she expects Promote the Vote to sue and push the issue to court soon. 

“I’m really really frustrated that these partisan canvassers took it upon themselves to stand in the way of the initiative when they didn’t really have the power to do so,” Wang said.

The deadlock came after three hours of public comment that included tearful testimonies, personal stories, debates over English literacy, mentions of witchcraft and Satan, accusations of murder and claims of judgment before God. 

Here’s a breakdown on both issues.

Abortion rights proposal 

The abortion issue was doomed, in part, because of spacing issues that caused words to run together on the ballot question.

Some examples: “DECISIONSABOUTALLMATTERSRELATINGTOPREGNANCY,” “FACTSOFTHECASE,” “INCLUDINGBUTNOTLIMITEDTOMISCARRIAGE,” and “OFTHEFETTUS’SSUSTAINED SURVIVALOUTSIDETHE.” 

State Bureau of Elections Director Jonathan Brater said the law is silent on spacing issues on ballot questions. Officials recommended certification because it submitted more than the 425,000 signatures required to qualify for the ballot.

But attorney Eric Doster, who represented opponents, argued that the ballot measure inserted spacing errors in March after state officials gave contingent approval for the initiative as long as it removed an unnecessary “the.”

The revised version did take out the extra word, but included texts that are lumped together, Brater noted Wednesday.

Hima Kolanagireddy, a Republican congressional candidate from Northville who told the board Wednesday English is her third language, said the word clumps could pose language barriers to those who are not native English speakers. 

“We take English quite literally,” she said. “It’s kind of not serving the needs of people who don’t speak English as their first language.” 

Olivia Flower, who represents Reproductive Freedom for All, argued the spacing issues are outside the board’s purview, as it is only supposed to decide if petitions have enough valid signatures and whether its format complies with requirements “mandated by the Legislature.”

Democratic canvasser Mary Ellen Gurewitz said she doesn’t think “there is any confusion.”

Board chair Tony Daunt, a Republican, disagreed, calling the spacing issues an “egregious error” and voted not to place the measure on the ballot.

Voting proposal

Challengers argued Promote the Vote would abrogate several sections of the existing constitution. State law requires constitutional amendments that would alter or nullify any parts of the constitution to state that and republish the parts the proposal would change.

Jonathan Koch, an attorney representing Defend Your Vote group opposing the measure, argued the proposal would eliminate the state Legislature’s ability to bar incarcerated people or those of “mental incompetence” from voting. 

“That authority would just be obliterated,” Koch said, arguing the proposal would render those sections “wholly inoperative.”

Elections officials recommended the measure go before voters, noting that the proposal met legal requirements after organizers collected enough signatures. Questions about its impact on other amendments to the constitution are best left to the courts, a staff report found.

“We didn’t weigh in … on the legal merits of those arguments,” Brater said.

Micheal Davis, executive director of Promote the Vote, previously deemed the challenge as “bogus, baseless and meritless.” Campaign attorneys pointed out Wednesday opponents did not raise the issue in previous challenges and canvassers had already approved the proposal format.

Two Republicans on the board disagreed.

Richard Houskamp, a Republican appointed last month, said during the meeting he has a “fundamental problem” with the current form of the proposal, saying that the format of the proposal didn’t present “the full story.”

Democratic members on the board argued Wednesday that courts — not the board — have the authority to determine if the proposal abrogated sections of the state constitution. 

“We are not a court,” Gurewitz said.“We cannot decide questions of law.”

The Michigan Supreme Court has ruled on similar claims before. In 2012, opponents to several petitions on collective bargaining and casinos sued, arguing the language omitted the full impact of those measures. The state Supreme Court decided in September 2012 that the collective bargaining proposal should qualify for the ballot, but denied the casino proposal a spot on the ballot because it did not clarify it would have effectively nullified parts of the state constitution.

Editor note: This story was updated at 9:46 a.m. Sept. 1 to correct an error about how absentee ballots would be funded.

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