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Supreme Court clears abortion, early voting proposals for Michigan ballot

abortion protest
A constitutional amendment to keep abortion legal in Michigan will be on the Nov. 8 ballot after a Thursday ruling by the state Supreme Court. (Dale Young/Bridge Michigan)
  • Abortion rights, early voting proposals must be on the Nov. 8 ballot, Michigan Supreme Court rules
  • The rulings could boost Democratic turnout, energize abortion supporters
  • Voters will also decide on an amendment to change term limit laws

Sept. 9: Abortion ballot measure: What Proposal 3 would do in Michigan

LANSING — Michigan voters will weigh separate constitutional amendments to guarantee abortion rights and allow early voting, after the Michigan Supreme Court ruled Thursday that both measures belong on the Nov. 8 ballot.

The rulings come one week after a deadlock on the bipartisan Board of State Canvassers blocked both initiatives. Two Republicans on the four-member board voted against the proposals, saying they had multiple defects.

The canvassers are supposed to meet again Friday to formally place the issues on the ballot.

Related:

In separate opinions, the Supreme Court ruled that both constitutional amendments met legal requirements to make the ballot. Two justices nominated by Republicans, Brian Zahra and David Viviano, dissented.

Challengers had argued the abortion proposal is “gibberish” because a formatting issue on the petition made it appear several words ran together, but Chief Justice Bridget McCormack slammed the argument in a concurring opinion.

“(Opponents) would disenfranchise millions of Michiganders not because they believe the many thousands of Michiganders who signed the proposal were confused by it, but because they think they have identified a technicality that allows them to do so, a game of gotcha gone very bad,” wrote McCormack, who was nominated by Democrats.

“What a sad marker of the times.”

Foes took issue with the early-voting measure, saying it should have included language mentioning it would nullify sections of the state constitution But the court found that it did not “abrogate any of the constitutional provisions identified by” opponents.

The seven justices on the court are nonpartisan but nominated for the ballot by political parties. Zahra is up for re-election to an eight-year term in November, as is Richard Bernstein, a Democratic-aligned justice who sided with the majority on both rulings.

The orders mean three constitutional amendments are now on the November ballot:

  • Reproductive Freedom for All to enshrine abortion rights into the state constitution.  There is debate over how it affects state laws restricting abortion access, such as parental consent and the 24-hour wait period.
  • Promote the Vote 2022 to allow nine days of early voting, public funding of absentee ballot postage and the continuation of state law allowing registered voters to cast ballots without ID if they sign an affidavit.
  • Voters for Transparency and Term Limits to set a 12-year limit on the time lawmakers can serve in the state Legislature and apply stricter financial disclosure rules to state elected officials, including the governor, secretary of states, attorney general and lawmakers.

An energized electorate?

The abortion issue has drawn the most attention since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, ending nearly 50 years of federal protections of abortion rights and allowing states to regulate the procedure. 

“We are energized and motivated now more than ever to restore the protections that were lost under Roe,” said Reproductive Freedom for All spokesperson Darci McConnell.

“This affirms that more than 730,000 voters read, signed, and understood the petitions and that the frivolous claims from the opposition are simply designed to distract from our effort to keep the abortion rights we had under Roe for nearly 50 years.”

Abortion is a key issue in the race for governor, as incumbent Democrat Gretchen Whitmer has vowed to “fight like hell” to keep the procedure legal, while Republican opponent Tudor Dixon opposes it except in instances to save the life of mothers.

Abortion ballot measures are generally believed to boost turnout among Democrats, while a poll this week from The Detroit News and WDIV-TV found Whitmer has gained a large lead on Dixon in part because of their stances on abortion.

Whitmer on Thursday celebrated the court ruling, saying “make no mistake: in Michigan, we will never stop fighting for reproductive freedom.” 

Late Thursday, Dixon tweeted the ruling means "can vote for Gretchen Whitmer’s abortion agenda & still vote against her.

"Gretchen, time to stop hiding behind your BS ads," Dixon tweeted, referring to numerous TV ads by Whitmer surrogates about Dixon's stance on abortion.

Republicans and other opponents contend the abortion ballot proposal contains at least 60 missing spaces between words, such as “DECISIONSABOUTALLMATTERSRELATINGTOPREGNANCY,” “ORALLEGEDPREGNANCYOUTCOMES,” “FORAIDINGORASSISTINGAPREGNANT” and “THEPOINTINPREGNANCYWHEN.”

But an analysis by Bridge Michigan detected clear spaces when copying and pasting the text of the ballot measure into word-processing programs. The court ruled the law only requires the words be present and in 8-point font.

Michigan Republicans blasted the court decision as a "dereliction of legal duty,"

"The rulings now allow for the possibility of error ridden documents to be enshrined into our state constitution," Elizabeth Giannone, deputy communications director of the state Republican Party, said in a statement.

The fight now moves to the ballot box, said Christen Pollo of the anti-abortion coalition Citizens to Support MI Women and Children.

“It falls to voters now to reject this mistake-ridden, extreme proposal on Election Day,” Pollo said in a statement. “This would become part of our constitution permanently, and no matter how much it endangered the health and safety of our children, we’d be stuck with it.”

Abortion rights in Michigan have been debated and litigated all summer, and the procedure remains legal at least for now.

The state has a 1931 law making performing an abortion a felony, but a Court of Claims judge on Wednesday issued a permanent injunction blocking enforcement of it. That decision is likely to be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Promote the Vote

The Promote the Vote measure, meanwhile, has been contentious because opponents claim it would nullify several state laws, including the state Legislature’s ability to exclude incarcerated people or those of “mental incompetence” from voting.

Supporters of the measure noted that issue was not raised when state canvassers had previously approved the measure’s formatting and 100-word summary. 

The majority of the court on Thursday sided with the proponents. In a concurring opinion, Justice Elizabeth Welch said the proposed provisions can “exist and operate in harmony” with the constitution.

The rulings came on the eve of a Friday deadline to finalize ballot wordings for constitutional amendments, and Zahra used his dissent to renew his call to "amend our election laws to require certification by the Board of State Canvassers at least six weeks before the affected ballot must be finalized.”

“Such a time frame would allow this Court and the litigants adequate time to develop legal arguments for and against ballot access, the opportunity for those arguments to be argued in court, and time for thoughtful deliberation by this Court regarding the legal questions presented before issuing a written opinion resolving the dispute," he wrote.

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