Michigan board deadlocks on abortion ballot, rejects Reproductive Freedom for All initiative

The Michigan Board of Canvassers has deadlocked on the vote about whether to put the legalization of abortion on the November ballot, which rejects the petition.

The board, which decides whether to allow constitutional amendments on the general election ballot, voted 2-2, effectively rejecting the petition despite the initiative receiving 596,379 valid signatures - 150,000 more than required to get the issue in front of the Bureau of Elections and the Board of Canvassers. The campaign originally submitted over 750,000 signatures. The Bureau of Elections confirmed last week that nearly 600,000 were valid.

The Reproductive Freedom for All (RFFA) ballot initiative would affirm in Michigan's Constitution the right to make pregnancy-related decisions without interference.

The RFFA has plans to appeal the ruling to the Michigan Supreme Court, which must be done within seven business days. This case will likely move faster than most as the ballot must be finalized by Sept. 9.

The two Democrats on the board voted in favor, but getting the measure on the ballot required at least three votes of the four-member board. The Reproductive Freedom for All campaign, which gathered signatures to get the measure on the ballot, is expected to appeal to the Democratic-leaning Michigan Supreme Court in the coming days.

BACKGROUND: Abortion remains legal in Michigan, for now

Attorney Eric Doster spoke in front of the board for Citizens Support MI Women and Children, an organization that is fighting the amendment, spoke in front of the board and said that the text of the proposal contains ‘nonsense passages’. 

"This board has never approved a petition that wasn't in English," Doster said. 

The organization argues that the language lacked spacing between words, the correct size font, and misspelling of words in the ballot initiative.

Michigan Elections Director Jonathan Brater said the version that the board reviewed did not have the spacing issues.

Olivia Flower and Steve Liedel spoke for RFFA sponsors. Flower cited the more than 750,000 residents who signed the ballot initiative.

ELECTION SURVEY: Two-thirds of likely voters support abortion measure in Michigan

"We urge you not to be distracted by the task at hand," Flower said. "The right to amend the Michigan constitution is a right reserved to Michigan people."

She said the board should consider only whether the petition meets the statutory requirements.

Liedel said there were some issues with spacing but that the text of the proposal is accurate. 

"The only mandatory element under the statute related to the language that appears under the constitutional amendment is that it must be in 8-point font. and it is," Liedel said. "The full text of the proposal is there. The only difference is the word spacing in four lines but that's not something that the board approves. there's no constitutional provision for that."

Republican Tony Daunt, the chair of the board, said if the original amendment was provided, the board would not have reviewed it with the typographical errors.

Liedel said the board's preferences were not up for consideration of the board and called on members to follow their oath of office to approve the proposal, regardless of what they think of the proposal.

"This is an egregious error of the form and the way that it is laid out," Daunt said.

He said this issue was clear-cut: the ballot initiative was not approved by the board.

"We did not approve what was circulated. We simply did not. All of us said this was a legal document," Daunt said. "We have rejected language for the exact same reasons."

Vice Chair Mary Ellen Gurewitz said the board had no authority to reject the petition based on spacing issues.

"We're talking about a challenge to the content and that is not within our purview," Gurewitz said. "People can read it. I can read it….I think we have no choice but to certify."

The Michigan Republican Party issued the following statement following the deadlock vote by the Board of Canvassers:

"This extreme initiative simply doesn’t belong on the ballot. Riddled with mistakes and errors, the initiative would repeal dozens of state laws including late-term abortion bans in place," said Elizabeth Giannone, MIGOP Deputy Communications Director. "Michiganders were fooled into signing this abortion on demand initiative that would take away parental consent for abortion, screening for women being coerced to have an abortion, and health and safety requirements for facilities performing abortions.

"This initiative is too extreme for Michigan and must be defeated."

The Michigan Board of Canvassers, comprising two Republicans and two Democrats, has become increasingly partisan in recent years.

The board made national headlines following the 2020 presidential election when one member, who has since resigned, abstained from voting to certify Joe Biden’s victory in the state. The other GOP board member, who voted to certify, wasn’t re-nominated by the state GOP party and was replaced by Tony Daunt, the board chairman.

Earlier this year, two leading candidates for the GOP nomination for governor were dropped from the primary ballot after the board deadlocked along partisan lines on whether too many fraudulent signatures on their nomination papers made them ineligible. A tie vote meant the candidates lost.

A deadlock in Wednesday’s vote officially means the initiative is rejected by the board, but a final decision would most likely come from the Michigan Supreme Court. Groups have seven business days following the board’s decision to appeal to the high court and the ballot must be finalized by Sept. 9.

The board also voted Wednesday not to place another initiative, to expand voting in the state, on the fall ballot, though the committee backing the measure is expected to appeal the decision to the Michigan Supreme Court.

The measure would expand voter rights by allowing nine days of in-person early voting, state-funded absentee ballot postage and drop boxes in every community. The four-member board split 2-2, with Democrats voting to certify the initiative for the ballot and Republicans opposing certification, saying some of its language is unclear.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.