The inclusion of an abortion-rights referendum on Michigan’s November ballot has given Democrats hope for a wave of enthusiastic voter turnout on Election Day as the movement to allow voters to decide the issue directly sweeps outward from the first state that did so, Kansas.
Democrats in Michigan say the referendum will supercharge activism among a broad swath of voters determined to keep abortion legal in the state, just as another referendum did in August, when 59 percent of voters in reliably Republican Kansas voted to maintain abortion access in the state. That could help Democrats up and down the ballot, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel, lawmakers in at least three closely watched House races and Democrats hoping to grab control of the State Legislature.
“The country stood up and listened when Kansas had its vote,” said Representative Elissa Slotkin, who is locked in a difficult re-election campaign in Central Michigan. “Those who were ready got it on the ballot for 2022. We’re going to see a lot more in 2024.”
Beyond Michigan, the measure provides a test run for a political strategy gradually taking hold in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which overturned Roe v. Wade. With little time to gather signatures, just four other states will vote on abortion referendums in November: Montana and Kentucky on Republican measures to restrict abortion, and California and Vermont on cementing abortion access.
But many abortion rights advocates already are looking past November to 2024, considering possible ballot measures in Missouri, Oklahoma, Iowa and, money and political muscle permitted, the presidential battlegrounds of Florida and Arizona.
Such measures would be designed to secure policy changes in states where Republican legislatures are in opposition. But they also could have political ramifications not seen since Republicans successfully used ballot initiatives on gay marriage to energize Christian conservatives during President George W. Bush’s re-election run in 2004.
Republicans may also revive that playbook, particularly in battlegrounds with active anti-abortion groups. But, for now, Democrats appear most eager to push the issue amid early signs that abortion is motivating their voters.
Polls show that a majority of Americans overall — and a slightly larger share of women — disapprove of the court’s decision. A Pew Research poll in July found that 57 percent of adults disapproved of the decision, 43 percent of them strongly. A Marquette Law School poll later that month found that approval ratings for the Supreme Court itself were on a steep downward slide, to 38 percent from 44 percent in May.
In the month after the decision, 55 percent of newly registered voters in 10 states analyzed by The Times were women, up from just under 50 percent before the decision was leaked in early May. In Kansas, more than 70 percent of newly registered voters were women.
Democrats have performed well in a string of special House elections since federal constitutional protection of abortion ended, including Democratic victories in Alaska and the Hudson Valley in New York.
Abortion opponents in Michigan say the state Supreme Court’s ruling on Thursday allowing the abortion rights amendment has energized their side as well. A coalition of 20 anti-abortion, social conservative and other groups calling itself Citizens to Support MI Women and Children had mobilized to block the referendum. Now, it is planning digital and television advertising, mailers and canvassing operations to paint the amendment as an “extreme” provision that would allow abortion throughout pregnancy.
The abortion amendment on the ballot does not include language limiting or regulating abortion, but it does invite the State Legislature to impose restrictions in line with Supreme Court precedents before the decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. The amendment would allow the state “to prohibit abortion after fetal viability unless needed to protect a patient’s life or physical or mental health.”
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With the primaries winding down, both parties are starting to shift their focus to the general election on Nov. 8.
Christen Pollo, a spokeswoman for the coalition, conceded that the number of signatures secured to put the measure on the ballot — more than 750,000 — was impressive. But she said she did not believe that support would hold after her organization ramps up its efforts.
“They may have received a record number of signatures, but I do not believe a record number of voters understand this proposal,” she said, adding that her side “has had thousands of people pouring out to get involved.”
But in swing districts, Democrats are seeing something else.
“The choice issue is deeply, deeply impacting the district,” said Hillary Scholten, a Democrat trying to capture a House seat around Grand Rapids. “Doctors and nurses are terrified. Women are terrified.”
In one sign of momentum behind abortion-rights supporters, Tudor Dixon, the Republican challenging Ms. Whitmer for the governorship, has been trying to soften her hard-line stance against abortion. After the state Supreme Court’s decision certifying the ballot measure, Ms. Dixon wrote in a tweet, “And just like that you can vote for Gretchen Whitmer’s abortion agenda & still vote against her.”
In an interview with The New York Times, Ms. Dixon said she intended to campaign on education and crime, not abortion.
“I’m going to vote no on it, but it’s up to the people,” she said, adding that if the referendum passes, she would not fight it as governor.
“I’m running to be the chief executive of the state, and what that means is that I will enforce the laws that are on the books. And if this is what the people choose, then that’s my role,” Ms. Dixon said. “If I get elected, that’s my role is to make sure that I honor their wishes.”
Michigan law on abortion is a subject of dispute. The state has had a ban on the procedure on the books since 1931. Since Roe was struck down, the courts have blocked enforcement of that state ban and abortions have continued, along with court cases.
Darci McConnell, a spokeswoman for Reproductive Freedom for All, the coalition that secured the Michigan referendum, said that abortion opponents would almost certainly be well funded. The state is known for big-spending conservative donors such as the DeVos family. But the group already has offices in 10 cities, has begun visiting and calling voters, and has put up digital advertising just weeks before absentee ballots go out.
“It’s a mad dash, but we’re prepared to do the work,” she said.
While Democrats see ballot measures and referendums as a way to work around Republican-led legislatures, Republicans across the country have sought to limit citizen-lead ballot initiatives, a century-old facet of American democracy. Republicans in several states have sought to make it harder to put initiatives on the ballot by increasing the number of signatures required, limiting funding for initiatives and restricting the signature-gathering process.
In South Dakota, for example, Republicans passed a law last year requiring a minimum font size of 14 points on ballot-initiative petitions. When combined with a requirement that all initiatives fit on a single sheet of paper, people gathering signatures are now forced to lug around bulky petitions, including some that unfold to the size of a beach towel.
Liberal groups expect more legislation targeting the ballot-initiative process next year as abortion initiatives begin in multiple states.
But the push from Democrats will be just as hard, especially in states with Democratic governors and Republican legislatures, or where gerrymandering has secured lopsided Republican majorities in legislatures that do not reflect the voters at large, Ms. Slotkin said.
“Initiatives are profoundly important ways to make changes in states like ours where we have gridlock in the legislature, and it’s where Democrats have the advantage because of our grass roots,” she said.
Mini Timmaraju, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said conversations about future ballot measures would gather steam after the fall elections, if, indeed, abortion proves to be a major driver in Democratic gains.
“There is no place where we shouldn’t be fighting on this issue,” she said. “We think there’s no turf that’s off limits.”