Record signature numbers filed for Michigan abortion, voting rights initiatives

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — A ballot committee seeking to enshrine the right to abortion in the Michigan Constitution turned in 753,759 signatures Monday, a record amount that exceeds the state-mandated signature tally by more than 300,000. 

A second ballot committee seeking to expand voting rights in the state constitution to include early in-person voting and late ballots from overseas military also exceeded the state's past signature record. On Monday, it collected and turned in 669,972 signatures. 

The state Bureau of Elections in the coming weeks will review the validity of the Reproductive Freedom for All and Promote the Vote 2022 signatures to ensure the initiative has the required 425,059 signatures to appear on the November ballot. Based on its findings, the bureau will make a recommendation to the Board of State Canvassers for or against certification for the ballot. 

The deadline for certification for the November ballot is Sept. 9, but organizers contend the Michigan Bureau of Elections will likely make recommendations earlier and perhaps consider certifications at Board of State Canvassers meetings in August, said Steven Liedel, an attorney for the Reproductive Freedom for All initiative. 

Boxes of filled out Promote the Vote 2022 petition sheets wait to be delivered to the Michigan Bureau of Elections in Lansing on Monday, July 11, 2022. Promote the Vote 2022 officials said the group submitted a total of 669,972 signatures in an effort to put a proposal before voters in November to expand the state's voting laws.

Reproductive Freedom for All saw a surge in volunteers and signatures after a leaked draft U.S. Supreme Court opinion in May signaled Roe's downfall. The high court's published opinion was released June 24, overturning Roe in a 6-3 decision. 

More than 62,000 people have gotten involved in or supported the Reproductive Freedom for All effort since it was announced in January, and more than 30,000 of those individuals came forward after the May leak, the group said. 

"The Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade will not take away the rights and freedoms of people in Michigan to determine if and when they become a parent," American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan Executive Director Loren Khogali said Monday in a statement.

"We will not allow forced pregnancy in our state, nor will we stand by as the devastating impacts of a post-Roe world disproportionately impact people of color, LGBTQ+ communities, young people, low-income people, and those living in rural areas. This is your body, your ballot, your choice.” 

Both ballot initiative groups said they employed extensive quality control reviews to ensure signatures submitted to the bureau were valid, noting the disastrous consequences of bypassing the review for five of 10 Republican gubernatorial hopefuls. 

"We did have a very careful procedure with our signature gathering," said Khalilah Spencer, president of Promote the Vote. "We made sure that we went through each signature. Those that were problematic, we have struck them. What we have turned in we are very confident are valid signatures."

The Reproductive Freedom for All effort collected at least 911,496 signatures but ended up eliminating 10,398 sheets or 150,737 signatures during its quality control review, Liedel said. Among those eliminated were a scattering of petition sheets filled out by the circulators accused of forgery in the gubernatorial primary and others eliminated for facial defects.

"There's a fairly exhaustive review process that involved both a facial review, manual review, scanning and other elements to assure both entire petition sheets and signatures on those sheets were valid to the best extent possible given the volume," Liedel said. 

Renee Chelian, executive director for Northland Family Planning and a Reproductive Freedom for All volunteer, speaks during a Monday, July 11, 2022, press conference announcing the group had collected 753,759 signatures for a ballot initiative that would enshrine reproductive rights, including the right to abortion, in the Michigan Constitution.

ACLU of Michigan President Nathan Triplett said Saturday that no petition initiative in Michigan history "has come close" to the number of signatures collected for the Reproductive Freedom for All initiative. He said the next closest was the pro-union 2012 Protect Our Jobs initiative, which turned in 670,771 signatures but was defeated at the ballot box.

Should Reproductive Freedom for All and Promote the Vote 2022 make the November ballot, they would join one other proposed constitutional amendment that would alter the state's term limits.

Reproductive Freedom for All 

Reproductive Freedom for All's proposed constitutional amendment states that every "individual has a fundamental right to reproductive freedom," including decisions related to pregnancy, postpartum and prenatal care, miscarriage, abortion, contraception, sterilization and infertility. 

The constitutional amendment guarantees a right to abortion up to fetal viability, at which point, the state can put in regulations so long as they don't prohibit abortions considered medically necessary to protect the physical or mental health of a mother. 

Fetal viability is defined as when a child can survive outside the womb without "extraordinary medical measures." That moment can differ "depending on the specific health circumstance of an individual pregnancy," but typically is considered to occur around 24 weeks, said Ashlea Phenicie, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Michigan. 

Anti-abortion groups opposing the petition initiative have dubbed it the "anything goes" proposal because they said it will counteract several existing laws, including the state's largely dormant abortion ban and rules requiring parental consent for minors seeking abortions or other reproductive healthcare. They also have argued the exceptions for the physical or mental health of the mother provide a low threshold for late-term abortions. 

"If they end up on the ballot, we look forward to convincing any of those signers to vote no," said Christen Pollo of opposition group Citizens to Support Michigan Women and Children. "And we believe we will because even those who support abortion aren’t likely to support the things hidden in the amendment text.”

Michigan's abortion ban currently is not being enforced in Michigan because a court order halted the law's enforcement while a lawsuit challenging it is pending. 

The lawsuit, filed by Planned Parenthood of Michigan, seeks to nullify the state abortion ban by establishing that a right to abortion already exists in the state constitution. A separate suit, filed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Oakland County Circuit Court, seeks a similar ruling. 

In May, state Court of Claims Judge Elizabeth Gleicher issued a preliminary injunction in the Planned Parenthood suit that forestalls enforcement of the state abortion ban while the case is pending.

Gleicher's ruling, which is being appealed through two channels in the Court of Appeals, found Planned Parenthood was likely to succeed on its argument that abortion was protected under the right to due process, which affords a right to bodily autonomy. 

Should voters in November pass the Reproductive Freedom for All ballot initiative, the amendment would take effect 45 days later, or sometime in December. 

Promote the Vote

The wide-ranging Promote the Vote ballot initiative would expand on a successful voting proposal passed by voters in 2018 that allowed for no-reason absentee voting among other items. 

The constitutional amendment, if approved, would trump efforts by the group Secure MI Vote to tighten voter identification rules. Secure MI Vote still is collecting for its petition, which it hopes to eventually place before the GOP-led Legislature for passage. 

Promote the Vote 2022 enlisted the help of 27 organizations, including Voters Not Politicians, to help collect signatures for the proposal, said Michael Davis, executive director for Promote the Vote. 

"Voters across Michigan want an election system that is secure and accessible," Davis said. "The common sense provisions of Promote the Vote 2022 do just that."

The Promote the Vote initiative was nothing more than a counter-offensive to Secure MI Vote's proposal and would undo existing election protections, said Jamie Roe, a spokesman for Secure MI Vote. He said Secure MI Vote intends to submit its signatures to the bureau "very soon."

"While we want to secure the vote, they want to make it easier to cheat and we’re going to fight like crazy to make sure ... that doesn’t pass," Roe said.

Spencer on Monday denied the Promote the Vote initiative was reactionary and said much of the content was based on polling of Michigan voters.

"We saw it was important," Spencer said. "We observed the 2020 election, even the 2018 election, and we see where there could be improvements and we built upon them."

The new proposal would allow for nine days of in-person early voting ahead of election day, require the state to pay for absentee ballot postage and ensure secure ballot drop boxes in every community. 

The proposal also would allow voters to join a permanent absentee ballot list, let election officials accept third party donations and ensure military or overseas ballots postmarked before Election Day and received within six days after an election still are counted.

The ballot initiative would require audits to be conducted publicly by state and county officials, with no involvement by party officials, and cement the role of canvassers in certifying election results. 

The plan also would enshrine in the constitution Michigan's current voter ID rules, which allow in-person voters to show a photo ID or fill out an affidavit attesting to their identity.