Michigan abortion rights ballot initiative errors should disqualify it, group argues

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A group opposing a ballot initiative seeking to enshrine the right to abortion in Michigan's constitution has asked state officials to reject the proposal because of text formatting mistakes in the petition circulated for signatures. 

Citizens to Support MI Women and Children said there are 43 "serious errors" in the Reproductive Freedom for All ballot language that would become part of the state's constitution should the ballot initiative earn a place on the November ballot and win over a majority of voters. 

Most of the errors identified by the group appear to be a lack of spaces between words in the main language of the petition that the group says has resulted "in a string of gibberish."

“This amendment cannot be made part of our constitution in its current form," said Christen Pollo, a spokeswoman for Citizens to Support MI Women and Children. "And there is no legal or constitutional process for changing the text of the amendment at this late stage. It is shocking, indeed, that more than three-quarters of a million voters — including the governor and the state attorney general — signed a petition they didn’t read and couldn’t understand."

The Reproductive Freedom for All ballot committee remained confident in its efforts. 

“We are confident that we're in compliance with the legal and statutory requirements for ballot proposals," said Darci McConnell, a spokeswoman for the group. "In fact, hundreds of thousands of Michiganders have spoken: more than 730,000 registered voters — a record number — have read, understood, and signed the petition.”

Citizens to Support MI Women and Children maintains the version circulated to voters with the errors is different from the form approved by the Board of State Canvassers earlier this year. The board gave the abortion rights petition conditional approval as to form on March 23. A March 30 copy of the petition copy posted to the Board of State Canvassers website appears to contain the errors identified.

Examples flagged by the group in the ballot language include the lack of spaces in phrases such as "DECISIONSABOUTALLMATTERSRELATINGTOPREGNANCY," "THEREISASIGNIFICANTLIKELIHOOD," or "OFTHEFETUS'SSUSTAINEDSURVIVALOUTSIDETHE."

Elder Leslie Mathews, an organizer with Michigan United, joins Leaders of the Reproductive Freedom for All campaign as they speak to supporters on Monday, July 11, 2022, in Lansing after turning in 753,759 signatures in a bid to qualify for Michigan's November ballot.

The Board of State Canvassers is expected to determine whether the proposal should be certified for the November ballot at its Aug. 31 meeting. Challenges to the petition are due Thursday

The American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood of Michigan and Michigan Voices turned in a record 753,759 signatures to the state Bureau of Elections last month in support of the Reproductive Freedom for All initiative. The signatures are being reviewed to determine whether the groups met the requisite 425,059 signature threshold to be certified for the November ballot. 

The ballot initiative would add language to the Michigan Constitution allowing for abortion up to fetal viability, which usually is considered to be around 24 weeks but is defined in the language as when a child can survive outside the womb without "extraordinary medical measures." The state Legislature would be allowed to regulate abortions after that point, but the language includes a carveout that would allow abortions after fetal viability to protect the physical or mental health of a mother. 

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

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

Michigan's current abortion ban is not being enforced in Michigan because of two separate court orders — one in the state Court of Claims and one in Oakland County Circuit Court — that have put temporary pauses on enforcement of the law while challenges to its constitutionality are litigated in court. Michigan's current abortion ban prohibits abortion in all cases, except to preserve the life of the mother.

The lawsuits, filed by Planned Parenthood of Michigan and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, seek to nullify the state abortion ban by arguing there is already a right to abortion in Michigan's constitution. 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com