Opinion: Pass ballot initiatives to protect abortion rights, voting

When state legislators ignore voters’ wishes, Michigan’s constitution provides a remedy.  In this year’s election, giving lawmakers a wake-up call is as easy as 1-2-3.

In a representative democracy, voters rely on their elected leaders to adopt laws and policies that reflect the public's sentiments about the great issues of the day. Lawmakers who ignore or defy the people's policy preferences risk losing their jobs when the next election cycle rolls around.

But Michigan voters have another recourse when legislators in Lansing turn a deaf ear to public opinion: the ballot initiative.

Placing a proposed law or constitutional amendment before voters is expensive and time-consuming. But in a state where partisan gerrymandering has insulated incumbents in both parties from electoral competition, the ballot initiative has become an increasingly popular way to get Lansing's attention.

Four years ago, voters overcame determined Republican resistance to adopt constitutional amendments that legalized recreational marijuana, put legislative redistricting in the hands of an independent citizens commission, and made absentee voting easier.

This November, Michiganders have the opportunity to approve three more significant amendments -- including one that would largely forbid state legislators from intruding on the reproductive choices of Michigan women.

None of these ballot initiatives would be necessary if Republican legislative leaders were more responsive to what Michiganders repeatedly implored the Legislature to do:

∎ Make elected officials' disclose their financial interest in the legislation and policies they support

∎ Make it easier for voters to vote and for election clerks to count votes

∎ Stop trying to criminalize abortion

But state legislators have done nothing to address these concerns; to the contrary, the Republican legislative majority has spent much of the last four years trying to confound election reforms voters adopted in 2018. So, for reasons we elaborate on below, we recommend that Michigan voters adopt each of the state constitutional amendments on this year's election ballot by voting YES on Proposal 1, Proposal 2 and Proposal 3.

Proposal 1: Term limits and financial disclosure

For most of Michigan's history, it was not unusual for candidates elected to the Michigan Legislature to hold their seats for decades, winning re-election cycle after cycle until retirement or death cleared the way for a successor. Then, in 1992, voters adopted an amendment to the state constitution that established some of the shortest term limits in the nation: a maximum of three two-year terms in the House, and up to two four-year terms in the state Senate. (Governors, attorneys general and secretaries of state were also limited to two terms.)

The idea was to drain Lansing's leadership pool at regular intervals and refresh it with new faces who would focus on doing as much as they could with their limited time in office.

Term limits have succeeded in increasing the churn in Lansing, but they have also made it more difficult for legislators to acquire experience and expertise in the public policy matters they oversee. Lawmakers have less opportunity to establish trusting relationships with their colleagues and rely increasingly on the institutional knowledge only lobbyists and unelected bureaucrats now possess.

Term-limited lawmakers also have developed a habit of kicking complicated challenges (like deteriorating infrastructure or looming budgetary deficits) down the road, secure in the knowledge that they will no longer be in office when the consequences of their negligence come home to roost.

In short, it's difficult to make the case that term limits have made state government more effective, which may be why only 15 states have retained them.

How Proposal 1 would change term limits

Michigan lawmakers are currently allowed to serve in the Legislature for up to 14 years -- a maximum of six years in the House, followed my a maximum of eight in the Senate.

Proposal 1 would modify Michigan's term limits for legislators in two ways:

First, all lawmakers would be restricted to just 12 years of legislative service. But any legislator could choose to serve all 12 years in a single chamber -- up to six two-year terms in the House, or three two-year terms in the Senate. Spending 12 years in one chamber would give lawmakers more opportunity to acquire experience, credibility and familiarity with colleagues before taking on leadership roles, for which today's short-lived lawmakers are often ill-prepared.

Its a modest tweak that would strengthen both chambers without reviving the political careerism and legislative fiefdoms Michigan voters hoped to banish when they first adopted term limits.

An added incentive

In a bid to make this tweak more attractive to voters, the legislative majority that placed Proposal 1 on the November ballot have included a provision that would eventually require candidates for state office to disclose their assets, liabilities, sources of income and other financial information that could reveal when elected officials are acting for their own gain.

Financial disclosure requirements have long been mandatory for congressional candidates and most other office seekers in the vast majority of states. Michigan is one of just two that have failed to provide voters with the information they need to discern when elected officials are exploiting their offices to advance their personal interests. It's a deficiency that prompted the Center for Public integrity to rank our state dead last in its efforts to promote transparency and accountability.

This shouldn't have required a ballot initiative, of course. Legislators could have adopted the minimal ethical standards that prevail in nearly every other state decades ago with a simple majority vote. Instead, lawmakers whose primary objective is to secure more flexible term limits have offered this overdue financial disclosure requirement as an added inducement to voters.

It's a offer Michiganders should accept, however cynical its inspiration. The opportunity to improve the quality of Michigan's legislative representation and provide voters with new tools for holding lawmakers accountable is ample justification to vote YES on Proposal 1.

Poll worker Steven Addo collects absentee ballots as voter drive up outside of the Detroit Department of Elections building in Detroit on Monday, November 2, 2020.
Poll worker Steven Addo collects absentee ballots as voter drive up outside of the Detroit Department of Elections building in Detroit on Monday, November 2, 2020.

Proposal 2: Securing the right to vote

Championed by a coalition that includes the Michigan League of Women Voters, the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, and the Michigan chapter of the NAACP, Proposal 2 would enshrine many existing voting rights in the state constitution and create several new ones -- including, notably, provisions for in-person voting up to nine days before a statewide election.

To understand how it the proposed amendment came to be and why we are recommending its approval, it's useful to review both the history of Michigan's efforts to make voting more accessible and the Republican state Legislature's persistent campaign to undermine those efforts.

As recently as four years ago, casting an absentee ballot in Michigan was a privilege reserved for senior citizens and voters who attested they were unable attend their designated polling places on Election Day. But in 2018, over the objection of Republican legislators, Michigan voters overwhelmingly approved a state constitutional amendment that authorized any-reason absentee voting. The amendment also made it easier for new voters to register, restored the straight-ticket voting option GOP legislators had repealed two-years earlier, and routinized the statewide election audits Michigan then-secretary of state, Republican Ruth Johnson, had earlier prescribed.

In a 2020 election complicated by the global COVID-19 pandemic, a record 3.3 million Michiganders --fully 60% of those who cast ballots -- took advantage of the new rules to vote absentee. Liberalized absentee voting rules are widely credited for the record turnout in both parties.

Eight states had been conducting all-mail elections without incident for years before 2020. Most others, like Michigan, experienced an explosion in absentee voting, but detected no increase in the incidence of voter fraud, despite Donald Trump's ominous forecast that any expansion of absentee voting would cast doubt on the election results.

A renewed assault on voting rights

Republican state legislative leaders wisely refused to dignify Trump's stolen election lies by invalidating the results of Michigan's presidential election, and a subsequent inquiry conducted by state Sen. Ed McBroom conclusively debunked the Trump campaign's persistent claims that absentee votes had been falsified.

But in a craven surrender to conspiracy theorists who continue to amplify baseless claims of widespread voter fraud, GOP lawmakers are poised to adopt a laundry list of election law changes designed to counteract the reforms voters adopted in 2018.

A Republican-backed group called Secure MI Vote has gathered signatures for an initiative that would erect new obstacles to absentee voting and bar third party contributions to assist municipalities in conducting efficient elections. Republicans say the provision would prevent wealthy donors like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg from funneling election aid to blue states or municipalities. But election officials in both parties worry the proposed law would prohibit them from utilizing polling venues provided by churches, schools and other public-spirited institutions.

Myriad investigations, including one empaneled by then President Trump, have failed to rebut the law enforcement consensus that voter fraud is vanishingly rare. Even so, Michigan Republicans argue that the new voting restrictions in the Secure MI Vote initiative are necessary to restore public confidence undermined by the former president's baseless stolen election claims.

This is disingenuous nonsense, a feeble attempt to justify restrictions that are transparently designed to sabotage the popular reforms voters adopted in 2018.

And Republican legislators know it: Instead of risking its likely rejection in in a popular referendum, they hope to adopt the Secure MI Vote initiative in a party-line vote exempt from gubernatorial veto.

The adoption of Proposal 2 would short-circuit that scheme by incorporating many of the election law reforms Secure MI Vote seeks to block in the state constitution, where they would be protected from the Republican legislative majority's efforts to weaken them.

Critics of Proposal 2 point out that it would do more than preserve the status quo, noting that it would require the state to provide polling places where voters could cast in-person ballots up to nine days before Election Day. But voters in nearly half the states already enjoy that option, and there's no evidence it would make Michigan elections less fair or secure. States as diverse as Texas, New York and North Carolina have been allowing early in-person voting for many election cycles, and Michigan voters should not hesitate to take the same, practical step by voting YES on Proposal 2.

Abortion-rights protesters march through downtown Detroit following a rally at the Theodore Levin Federal Court building in Detroit to protest against the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022.
Abortion-rights protesters march through downtown Detroit following a rally at the Theodore Levin Federal Court building in Detroit to protest against the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022.

Proposal 3: Protecting women, physicians and choice

The U.S. Supreme Court reneged on a guarantee of bodily autonomy multiple generations of American women had taken for granted when it overturned its 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, the decision that had recognized a constitutional right to abortion.

Michigan voters have a chance to restore what was lost -- and protect women from the state Republican Party's ongoing campaign to criminalize their private health decisions -- by voting YES on PROPOSAL 3.

Besides unambiguously establishing a state constitutional right to choose abortion, Proposal 3 would prohibit state legislators and law enforcement authorities from restricting access to contraception, miscarriage care and treatment for infertility.

Until conservative justices eviscerated Roe earlier this summer, Michigan women could undergo abortions without fear that they or their physicians would face criminal prosecution. Now nearly every Republican campaigning for elective office this November seeks to outlaw the procedure in nearly every circumstance, even when the woman seeking the abortion is an underaged victim of rape or incest.

Its an uncompromising stance most Americans, and most Michiganders, reject. Polling regularly reveals that an overwhelming majority of Americans support the right to choose; three-quarters believe the decision to end a pregnancy should rest exclusively with women and their doctors.

Most abortion-seekers -- about 60% -- are already parents. The vast majority of abortions take place before 12 weeks of gestation, and most are pharmaceutical, not surgical. Late-term abortions are rare, and almost always performed because the pregnancy is not viable, because continuing it threatens the life of the mother, or both.

Women who choose abortion typically regard it as the least worst option available to them. A groundbreaking study that followed women for five years after an abortion found that the vast majority experienced primarily relief that they had been able to obtain the procedure. The study also tracked women who had sought, but not undergone, abortions. Overwhelmingly, the outcomes the women feared had come to pass: Loss of economic stability, inability to escape abusive relationships, fewer resources for the children they already had. An analysis by the Citizens Research Council cites copious evidence that women with access to legal abortion enjoy higher educational attainment and higher standards of living.

Erecting barriers between women and safe access to the full range of reproductive care will levy a brutal cost. For nearly 50 years, Michigan has recognized a woman's right to make these intensely personal choices herself, and there is neither a good argument nor popular support for empowering legislators and prosecutors to overrule them.

An antidote to uncertainty

The Supreme Court's ruling returned the question of abortion access to state legislatures, creating a welter of confusion across the U.S. In some states, abortion became illegal immediately, because of trigger laws passed while Roe stood. Other states, like Ohio, moved to immediately enact draconian abortion restrictions. All told, abortion is now illegal or sharply restricted in about half of American states.

Michigan inhabits uncertain territory. Republican prosecutors are champing to enforce a 1931 Michigan law that makes abortion a felony punishable by imprisonment in nearly all circumstances., Planned Parenthood of Michigan and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have filed separate lawsuits asking the state Supreme Court to declare that the 1931 law violates the Michigan constitution. Only two lower court injunctions that have postponed enforcement of the 1931 abortion ban while those challenges are being litigated stands between health care providers and prosecutors who want to make criminal examples of them.

A coalition of Michiganders and state organizations called Reproductive Freedom For All collected nearly 600,000 valid signatures in support of Proposal 3, a state record. Republican members of the state Board of Canvassers tried to block Prop 3 from the ballot, arguing that some spaces in the text of petitions signed by voters were too slender, but the Michigan Supreme Court ordered the board to place the measure on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Opponents have warned of dire scenarios in store if voters adopt Proposal 3. They worry that a host of state laws that withstood legal challenge before Roe was overturned would ultimately be struck down under the proposed constitutional amendment's expansive language.

But many of those laws -- like the requirement for so-called "informed consent," which mandates a 24-hour waiting period, and requires health care providers to offer patients ultrasound views of any fetus they proposed to abort -- were expressly designed to make abortions more cumbersome and stressful. Under Proposal 3, those who seek to justify such restrictions would rightfully face more difficulty defending them in court.

Prop 3 foes also say that the amendment would make it virtually impossible to restrict abortions performed as late as a day before an anticipated birth. This is more scare-mongering. The amendment explicitly allows the state to regulate abortion after the point of fetal viability, a sliding standard that allows for advances in medical technology, so long as there is no impairment of the mother's health. Late-term abortions are, in any case, exceedingly rare. Any suggestion that there is a pent-up demand by women eager to terminated their pregnancies in the final weeks of gestation is spurious.

Some Proposal 3 critics express concern that less restricted access to abortion will encourage women to have more sex, resulting in more unwanted pregnancies. No data supports this assertion, but assuring access to contraception, another right protected by Prop 3, is a proven way to bring down the rate of abortions.

We recognize that many of these arguments are irrelevant to abortion opponents who believe that the procedure represents the impermissible theft of a human life. We respect the sincerity of their convictions, but we join the majority of Michiganders in rejecting the proposition that the state should impose those convictions on everyone else.

We believe Proposal 3 can restore the autonomy, dignity and expectations of safety MIchigan women have enjoyed for half a century, and we encourage every voter to approve its adoption.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this editorial erroneously asserted that some Republican state Supreme Court justices attempted to keep Proposal 18-3, which expanded voter rights, off the 2018 ballot. In fact, their objections were directed to Proposal 18-2, which reformed the redistricting process.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Opinion: Pass ballot initiatives to protect abortion rights, voting