When Michigan voters chose Democrat Gretchen Whitmer as governor last year, it ended eight years of Republican dominance in the state’s politics and introduced a governor who promised to end the longtime trend of the state enacting increasingly tough abortion restrictions.
But anti-abortion activists are exploiting an unusual feature of Michigan’s laws in an effort to keep her from getting a say.
On Wednesday, state election officials gave two anti-abortion groups the go-ahead to start gathering signatures for a voter initiative that would ban abortion at six weeks — a so-called “heartbeat ban” — and a separate initiative that would ban a common method of second-trimester abortion.
Versions of the latter ban have already passed the Michigan Senate and House, and Whitmer has threatened to veto the measure.
Legislation introduced by voter petition in Michigan, however, is immune from a governor’s veto. The number of valid signatures required for a petition to go to the ballot or legislature is equivalent to 8% of the votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election ― meaning activists could effectively cause a revote on the measure with no possibility of a veto if they obtained just over 340,000 signatures.
For either petition to succeed would be significant because it would amount to Republicans keeping power in a state where Democrats appeared to score a decisive victory in 2018.
Michigan was one of four states last year where Republicans lost their “trifecta,” or single-party control of state government. Republican candidates for the state legislature lost the popular vote. But Republican-led gerrymandering of the state, which is the subject of an ongoing legal battle, allowed the party to maintain comfortable majorities in both houses.
The ballot initiative process exists so citizens can take a law directly to voters when they feel the legislature is acting against their interests by refusing to pass it. What these groups are doing is the opposite. Lori Carpentier, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan
The petition feature is unusual even among states that allow citizen-initiated bills. And it has abortion rights groups accusing Republicans of forcing a “do-over” of the recent midterms and the normal legislative process.
Lori Carpentier, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, called the petition drives “an abuse of the process.”
“The ballot initiative process exists so citizens can take a law directly to voters when they feel the legislature is acting against their interests by refusing to pass it,” she said. “What these groups are doing is the opposite. They have a legislature that is trying to act against the will of the people, but can’t, because the people deliberately elected a reproductive health care champion in Gov. Whitmer.”
“Even worse, they don’t want to put it to voters — because they know both proposals are wildly unpopular,” Carpentier added. “What they want to do is put them before lawmakers so they can pass and enact them in a veto-proof manner.”
The powerful Right to Life of Michigan is leading a petition to ban dilation and extraction, a common method of second-trimester abortion.
Spokeswoman Genevieve Marnon said the group anticipated easily garnering the required signatures in the coming months by going to places like county fairs, parades and church parking lots.
She rejected the idea that the group is abusing the democratic process, saying the petition drive “substitutes 400,000 signatures for the veto signature of one governor.” (The group is aiming to collect more signatures than it needs in case some are disqualified.)
“For some reason, that comment, and that sentiment, only comes up with our issues,” Marnon said. “I didn’t hear anyone calling it an ‘end-run’ around the process with pot, the minimum wage, paid sick time, gerrymandering or same-day registration. Why are we not hearing about thwarting the will of the people with those?” She was referring to several successful voter drives in 2017 and 2018. Petitions to legalize recreational marijuana, and change redistricting and voters registration laws were approved by voters on the November ballot; the legislature raised the minimum wage and required paid sick leave.
The two anti-abortion measures would appear on the 2020 ballot if the legislature failed to pass or act on them. Marnon wouldn’t say whether the group would encourage the legislature to pass the measure or let it go to the ballot. But she said Right to Life had encouraged the legislature to approve its petition drives in the past, rather than letting them go to a popular vote on the general ballot.
Of the two proposals, many abortion rights supporters are more concerned about the one regarding dilation and extraction. A bill to ban abortion at six weeks has gone nowhere in the Michigan legislature, and moderate voters in the state are highly unlikely to pass such a strict measure if it goes to the popular ballot.
The group driving the six-week ban, the Heartbeat Coalition, formed only recently and has never run a large-scale petition drive. It could not be reached for comment.
Right to Life of Michigan, by contrast, has proven adept at using the petition method to enact controversial laws.
The group has used the state’s petition process four times since 1987 to pass abortion restrictions it couldn’t enact through the normal legislative process, including a 2013 measure that was so politically unpopular it was vetoed by the state’s Republican governor at the time, Rick Snyder. After his veto, Right to Life mounted a petition for the measure, which would have banned abortion coverage from health insurance plans unless patients purchased a special insurance rider — what critics derided as “rape insurance.”
Federal courts have struck down both six-week bans and the Right to Life-supported ban on dilation and extraction.
Carpentier said she believes the point of both efforts is to provoke a challenge to abortion rights before the Supreme Court — which is why both efforts have her equally concerned.
“Given that either one could lead to an overturn of Roe,” she said, “I’d have to call it even.”