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Michigan Right to Life abortion ban may fall short on signatures

LANSING — Right to Life of Michigan did not collect enough valid voter signatures to advance an initiative proposing to ban a common second-trimester abortion procedure, according to new estimates from the state Bureau of Elections. 

The findings, though not final, threaten to derail an effort to avoid a threatened veto by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer by sending the Republican-led Legislature a measure that lawmakers could enact into law with simple majority votes. 

“It’s disappointing, but we’re not done yet,” Genevieve Marnon, legislative director for Right to Life of Michigan, told Bridge Monday.

In a report released Monday, Bureau of Elections staff who reviewed a sample of the 380,070 signatures collected by the group estimated that only 332,771 were valid. That’s short of the 340,047 signatures required to advance the initiative. 

Under Michigan law, petition groups must collect the required number of signatures within a 180-day window — a time frame that has closed on the group. 

The Michigan Board of State Canvassers, a bipartisan panel that is set to meet Thursday, will have final say on the validity of the signatures. But in the new report, Bureau staff recommend canvassers “deny certification” for the Michigan Values Life petitions.

The Right to Life proposal would ban an abortion procedure that medical experts call “dilation and extraction” but Right to Life calls “dismemberment abortion.” It is the most common form of abortion for women in the second trimester of a pregnancy. 

The Republican-led state House and Senate have each passed their own versions of the ban but have not sent any finished legislation to Whitmer, who has vowed a veto. 

The Bureau of Elections initially tossed roughly 7,000 signatures that had been submitted on "wholly invalid" petition sheets that were either torn, defective or included multiple jurisdictions, which is not allowed under state rules. 

Staff then analyzed a sample of 500 signatures and found that of those, 22 were invalid because of the signers’ registration status, 20 were duplicates, and 12 included other jurisdiction, date or signature errors. 

Based on that error rate, staff estimated that Right to Life turned in 40,291 invalid signatures, leaving it 7,276 short of the number required. 

Planned Parenthood of Michigan, which opposes the measure, had filed challenges with the state seeking to invalidate 66 of the sample signatures. 

"At first blush, I think it's encouraging that the Bureau staff sees the same problems that our staff and volunteers saw when they looked at the signatures and really checked them closely," said Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Angela Vasquez-Giroux.

The state automatically raised signature requirements this election cycle because of high voter turnout in 2018, when "a bunch of women voting for pro-choice women" propelled Whitmer and other female officials into office, Vasquez-Giroux said. 

Bureau of Elections staff found that 446 of the sample signatures submitted by Right to Life were valid. Three more valid signatures would have triggered additional review of a larger sample, which the anti-abortion group is still hoping for. 

"This is a recommendation," Marnon said the Bureau of Elections staff report. "We will be taking our case to the Board of Canvassers on Thursday and making our case."

Right to Life still hopes to “rehabilitate” some of the invalidated signatures.

In one instance, Marnon said, elections staff rejected a signature from a man with Parkinson's disease and "sloppy handwriting" who appeared to list his residence as Jamestown Township even though he was registered to vote in Georgetown Township. 

He later signed an affidavit saying he intended to write Georgetown Township, “and you’re not going to accept that signature?” Marnon said, questioning the state findings.

"That's the kind of stuff that’s very frustrating,” she said. “It's disenfranchising to have all these voters whose voices aren't going to be heard because it comes down to a couple signatures of those 380,000."

The Michigan Constitution gives the Legislature 40 days to take up legislation initiated by petition drive or let it go to the ballot for voters to decide. An initiated bill can become law without the governor’s signature if it is approved by majorities in the House and Senate.

That’s only happened nine times since 1963, but Right to Life of Michigan has successfully navigated the rare path on several occasions, most recently in 2013, when the GOP-led Legislature enacted an abortion insurance law opposed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.

Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey have each told Bridge they would likely hold a vote on the Right to Life proposal if it reached them in 2020.

It's no longer clear whether they'll have the chance.

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