LANSING, Mich. (AP) — An abortion-rights group on Thursday asked the Michigan Supreme Court to approve a November ballot question on whether a right to abortion should be enshrined in the state constitution.
Reproductive Freedom for All filed its request with the high court after the state canvassing board rejected the ballot question on Wednesday. That body deadlocked 2-2 on partisan grounds, with a pair of Republican commissioners citing what they called spacing errors in the petitions calling for the ballot question.
Abortion-rights supporters say it’s important for state residents to be able to weigh in on the abortion question, especially because of a 1931 law that would ban all abortions except to save the life of the mother that abortion opponents had hoped would be triggered by the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade in June. The law has been blocked by months of court battles.
In the filing, the group asked the court to order the Board of State Canvassers to certify the question for the November ballot, and to do so by Wednesday. That would give board members time to certify the initiative before the board’s meeting on Sept. 9, which also is the deadline set by state law for the board to certify the ballot to the Secretary of State.
RFFA submitted more than 750,000 signatures, attorneys for the group wrote, making it the largest number submitted for a ballot initiative in state history. State law required a minimum of about 425,000 valid signatures, and state officials determined last week that the petition contained nearly 600,000 valid signatures.
RFFA said the volume of signatories demonstrated “widespread grassroots support.”
“This Court should safeguard the right of the People to exercise their political power and protect it from strained interpretations of law that stand to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters,” attorneys argued.
Abortion-rights supporters have criticized the Republican members of the state board — a panel once seen as handling largely routine, administrative matters — as bowing to political pressure to try to stop the measure from appearing on the ballot.
Democrats believe the issue has helped the party gain ground on Republicans this election cycle since the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated constitutional protections for abortion. In conservative Kansas, for example, voters overwhelmingly defeated a measure that would have allowed the Republican-controlled Legislature to tighten restrictions or ban the procedure outright.
Michigan, a swing state that also is a presidential battleground, has several high-stakes races on the ballot in November, including contests for governor, secretary of state and attorney general.
RFFA argued in its filing to the Michigan Supreme Court that its petitions met all prerequisites to appear on the Nov. 8 ballot, both in number of signatures and the format, and that the Board of State Canvassers overstepped its authority, violating “its clear legal duty,” when it rejected the initiative.
No party has disputed that the group turned in enough signatures, RFFA noted. Rather, opponents “resorted to hyperbole” regarding the spacing of language on the petition, calling the small spaces between some words “gibberish” and “incomprehensible argle-bargle,” the group said in its filing. They argue that Michigan election law doesn’t provide requirements for spacing and said the opponents “are unable to point to a single individual that did not understand” the petition.
Opponents of the ballot initiative said the board did the right thing in rejecting what they called a “mistake-riddled, anything goes” proposal. They said the initiative would insert “gibberish” into the state constitution.
“The Michigan Supreme Court should support this move to protect our constitution from their vandalism as well,” Christen Pollo, of Citizens to Support Michigan Women and Children, said after Wednesday’s vote.
John Pirich, a retired election law professor and former assistant attorney general, said that the petition’s language could be understood even with the spacing issues and that “any language that would be in doubt will be printed with the proper spacing in the Constitution.”
“The question is: Does someone read this and have they been confused as to what the intent is or misled as to what the intent of the petition is?” Pirich said. “I clearly understood the language.”
In a statement Wednesday, abortion-rights supporters said they are confident the court will decide in their favor and order the initiative go before voters on the November ballot. A majority of justices were put on the court by Democrats.
Abortion opponents protested outside of Wednesday’s board meeting, their yells at times audible inside the hearing room. The board also heard several hours of public comment, primarily from people who oppose abortion and told the board the procedure is immoral.
Burnett reported from Chicago.
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.