The Michigan Supreme Court said Thursday that voters would decide in November whether to add protections for abortion rights to the State Constitution, reversing the decision of a state board that had not allowed the proposal onto the ballot because of typographical problems on petition forms.
Abortion rights supporters gathered more than 750,000 signatures, hundreds of thousands more than were required, seeking a vote on whether abortion should remain legal in Michigan, a swing state with several closely contested races on this year’s ballot. That effort took on new urgency, and benefited from a wave of voter mobilization, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in June, ending the federally guaranteed right to abortion and leaving unsettled state rules in Michigan and elsewhere.
Despite the large number of signatures, the Michigan campaign ran into trouble when opponents noted a lack of visible spaces between some words on the petitions presented to voters. When that issue was presented to the Board of State Canvassers last week, its members deadlocked along party lines, and the question failed to make the ballot. The two Republicans on that appointed board voted against placing the issue on the ballot, while the two Democratic canvassers supported presenting the amendment to voters.
Reproductive Freedom for All, a group supporting the amendment, accused the canvassers of disenfranchising voters and quickly challenged the decision in court. Supporters of the amendment insisted that there were indeed spaces between words. They also argued that it was not the job of the state canvassing board, whose duties include approving language for ballot proposals, to weigh in on the content of the petitions.
The dispute could shape the future of abortion rights in Michigan, where a 1931 ban on the procedure was never taken off the books. Abortions have continued in the months since Roe was struck down as courts blocked enforcement of that state ban. Earlier this week, a judge said that law violated the State Constitution and could never be enforced, but appeals are possible.
Ballot questions have emerged as an option for preserving abortion rights in states where legislators are unlikely to pass new abortion protections or repeal old bans. Though Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, supports abortion rights, Republicans control the Michigan Legislature and have not moved to revisit the issue. In Kansas, voters overwhelmingly decided last month to preserve a state-level right to abortion.
Voters in a handful of other states will weigh in on the issue this year, though none of those places have a legal backdrop like Michigan’s. In California and Vermont, where abortion is already protected in state law, residents are poised to decide whether to enshrine abortion rights in their state constitutions. In Kentucky, where the procedure is already banned, voters will choose whether to make it clear in their Constitution that there is no state right to an abortion.