Michigan's elections panel deadlocked along partisan lines Wednesday on certifying an abortion rights measure for this fall's ballot that proposed adding an explicit right to seek the procedure in the state.
The impasse leaves the measure off the ballot. But a spokesperson for Reproductive Freedom for All said the group plans to file an appeal asking the Michigan Supreme Court to put the proposed constitutional amendment before voters as election officials prepare to send out ballots next month.
The two Democratic members of the Board of Canvassers — Jeannette Bradshaw and Mary Ellen Gurewitz — voted in favor of placing the Reproductive Freedom for All amendment on the ballot while the board's two Republican members — Tony Daunt and Richard Houskamp — voted against giving the amendment a spot on the ballot.
The organizers behind the abortion rights amendment collected enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, according to a review by the state's Bureau of Elections. They needed to file roughly 425,000 valid voter signatures but turned in nearly 600,000, according to the bureau’s estimate.
But the board's two Republican members sided with arguments from a group opposed to the amendment that alleged that organizers circulated a petition to collect voter signatures that was riddled with errors the board couldn't approve.
Citizens to Support MI Women and Children — the group behind the challenge — asserted that the amendment would add “gibberish” to the state constitution because organizers circulated a petition that omitted spaces between words in the proposed amendment.
The elections bureau declined to weigh in on the challenge, telling canvassers in its report that Michigan election law "is silent on the amount of space that must be between letters and words in a petition."
In March, the board conditionally approved a previous form without the missing spaces submitted by Reproductive Freedom for All contingent on the removal of an extraneous word in the petition text, according to the Bureau of Elections. When Reproductive Freedom for All submitted its petition to the bureau a week later, it put forward a petition that removed the extra word but changed the spacing between words. The bureau’s report to the canvassers ahead of the meeting Wednesday states that "the version of the petition with this spacing was not presented to the Board."
Citizens to Support MI Women and Children Attorney Eric Doster spoke to the board and said that it lacked the authority to certify the proposal because the petition did not contain the full text of the amendment.
"Legal documents require actual words, so do petitions," he told canvassers.
Olivia Flower, representing Reproductive Freedom for All, told canvassers they have two roles: approve petition form determine whether enough signatures were collected. The board already approved the form, she said. It now had a clear duty to certify the proposal for placement on the ballot.
"We urge you to finish your job today so voters can do theirs," she said.
Daunt says that if the amendment text without spacing had come before the board, it wouldn't have been approved. "It's a tragedy that it happened, but it happened," he said, calling the missing spaces an "egregious error" on the form. "All of us have said repeatedly that these are legal documents. You would not sign a mortgage that had this kind of mistake in it," he said.
Houskamp questioned how the missing spaces appeared in the petition in the first place: "How did you get this passed through all of your proofers?" he asked.
Reproductive Freedom for All attorney Steve Liedel said that the board has no statutory basis to reject the amendment based on word spacing and urged canvassers to certify the amendment.
The deadlock marked the second Wednesday from the bipartisan board.
Canvassers deadlocked on a separate constitutional amendment proposed by Promote the Vote that would establish early voting and preempt GOP efforts to change Michigan election law in the wake of the 2020 election.
Like Reproductive Freedom for All, Promote the Vote also plans to pursue legal action asking a court to put the amendment before voters this fall.
That impasse also leaves that proposal off the ballot for now, but organizers have said they plan to pursue legal action and expressed confidence the amendment will come before voters this fall.
Ahead of the meeting, abortion rights opponents protested outside the building where canvassers gathered early Wednesday morning. One held a sign calling abortion “murder.” During the public comment period, some protestors knocked on the windows, prompting Daunt at one point to call on security and ask them to stop.
Canvassers heard from more than 60 individuals who addressed the board at the start of the meeting during a public comment period that lasted about two and a half hours. Most commenters focused on the abortion rights proposal, and the bulk of those commenting expressed opposition to the abortion rights amendment and urged canvassers not to certify it for the ballot.
The Reproductive Freedom for All constitutional amendment proposes a “fundamental right to reproductive freedom, which entails the right to make and effectuate decisions about all matters relating to pregnancy,” including abortions. It opens the door to efforts to regulate abortions after fetal viability with exceptions for abortions deemed medically necessary.
Planned Parenthood of Michigan — one of the organizations behind the amendment — argues in a lawsuit challenging a state law banning most abortions that the state’s constitution already protects the right to seek abortions in Michigan.
Michigan judges have issued injunctions banning prosecutions of abortion providers in the Planned Parenthood lawsuit and another filed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. But the Michigan Court of Appeals essentially nullified the injunction in the Planned Parenthood case, and abortion rights opponents plan to appeal the order issued in Whitmer's lawsuit. That order only applies to prosecutors in the 13 Michigan counties with abortions.
The Michigan Supreme Court could rule in favor of or against abortion rights in any pending legal challenge, but hasn't formally taken up a case.
The Reproductive Freedom for All amendment proposes an explicit right to abortions in the state constitution and would prevent any future enforcement of the state law criminalizing most abortions.
Clara Hendrickson fact-checks Michigan issues and politics as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Make a tax-deductible contribution to support her work at bit.ly/freepRFA. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-296-5743. Follow her on Twitter @clarajanehen.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan abortion rights proposal off ballot for now