LANSING, Mich. – Voters will determine whether to place abortion rights in the Michigan Constitution, the state Supreme Court declared Thursday, settling the issue a day before the fall ballot must be completed.
Abortion rights would be guaranteed if the amendment passes on Nov. 8. A 1931 state law makes it a crime to perform most abortions, but the law was suspended in May and a judge this week followed up by striking it down as unconstitutional.
Though appeals of that decision are likely, the law would be trumped if voters approve the amendment in the fall election.
There are political implications beyond the ballot question.
Democrats say the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is mobilizing voters and will help Democratic candidates this fall, when top races including governor, secretary of state and attorney general are on the Michigan ballot. They point to conservative Kansas, where voters overwhelmingly defeated a measure that would have allowed the Republican-controlled Legislature to tighten restrictions or ban the procedure outright.
In Michigan, a state elections board on Aug. 31 deadlocked along party lines on whether the abortion initiative should appear on the ballot, with Republicans voting no and Democrats voting yes. The 2-2 tie meant the measure wasn’t certified for the ballot.
Supporters submitted more than 700,000 signatures, easily clearing the minimum threshold. But Republicans and abortion opponents argued the petitions had improper or no spacing between certain words and were confusing to voters.
“What a sad marker of the times,” Chief Justice Bridget McCormack said in a brief statement that accompanied the Supreme Court's 5-2 order.
McCormack said “there is no dispute” that every word was legible and in the correct order.
Republican members of the Board of State Canvassers “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,” McCormack said.
The majority was made up of McCormack, three other Democratic justices and a Republican justice. Two Republicans dissented.
The court directed state canvassers, who meet again Friday, to sign off on the ballot question. Tony Daunt, a Republican who had voted against the proposal, last week said that the board would obey a court order.
Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat who supports abortion rights, hailed the decision.
“Our state Constitution provides the people with direct access to the democratic process and that access should not be limited by appointed individuals acting beyond the scope of their duty,” Nessel said.
A group called Citizens to Support MI Women and Children said it will campaign against the amendment. Right to Life of Michigan also will be a major opponent.
“Current events continue showing us that any nation that sees the next generation as an existential threat — rather than an existential necessity — has no future,” Right to Life said on Facebook.
There was no immediate comment from Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who is in favor of the ballot question and is seeking reelection. Her Republican opponent, Tudor Dixon, opposes abortion rights except to save the life of the mother.
Results of a poll published this week by The Detroit News and WDIV-TV showed abortion and women’s rights was the top issue motivating Michigan residents to vote in November, ahead of inflation and cost of living, education, and the economy and jobs. The poll also showed a majority of likely voters support a proposed constitutional amendment guaranteeing abortion rights.
In a dissent, Justice Brian Zahra said supporters of the abortion question did not have a “clear legal right” to the ballot.
“Words separated by spaces cease being words or become new words when the spaces between them are removed,” Zahra said.
Burnett reported from Chicago and White reported from Detroit.
Joey Cappelletti is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.