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A lot can go wrong with a petition drive, but Right to Life has mastered the art of the initiative

It's Just Politics with Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta

The petition drive is the citizens’ direct route to changing laws. It’s part of the state constitution,Article 2, Section 9 (if you want to read it for yourself). The petition-initiated law is not subject to a veto by the governor. If the Legislature refuses to adopt it, the decision goes to voters as a statewide ballot question.


Right to Life of Michigan submitted petitions a week ago to initiate a law that would say people could no longer get abortion coverage as part of a basic health insurance plan. Consumers would have to buy separate coverage to get abortions paid for. The only exception would be an emergency abortion necessary to save a woman’s life.


“I had a similar bill that came to me that I vetoed,” Governor Rick Snyder reminded folks after the petitions were filed. “And that was the right answer in my view.”


Snyder vetoed this language when it was part of a bill sent to him last year by the Legislature because it did not include those rape and incest exceptions. That’s despite the fact that he has identified himself as “pro-life,” that is opposed to abortion, when he ran in  2010.


But not sufficiently so for Right to Life (whichendorsed another candidate in the 2010 Republican primary.) Right to Life has a ready response when governors veto legislation it supports. So, once again, Right to Life launched a petition drive to enact as an initiated law what Snyder hadvetoed.


This is the fourth time Right to Life has responded to a governor’s veto with a petition drive. Michigan’s Medicaid abortion ban (1987), the parental consent abortion law (1990), and the law that banned the dilation-and-extraction procedure (2011) were all enacted as citizen-initiated laws.  


Right to Life can pull this off because its signature-gathering operation is run with assembly line precision. It is one of the very few organizations that can, on its own, as an entirely volunteer operation, gather the signatures needed to initiate a law.


For example, the anti-fracking petition drive is also in the field. The Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan had to acknowledge this week that it hadn’t made its targets. The committee is going to continue its petition drive, but it’s got to try, at least, to rely more on paid, professional circulators.


But it will be tough going. Ballot drives rarely succeed if they fail to hit their initial targets. For one thing, signatures have to be collected within a three-month window. Once you pass that point, signatures that are older than that expire -- like old milk that needs to come off the store shelf.


That’s why most successful ballot campaigns hire professional circulators. In fact, ballot drives are a big political business in Michigan. Consulting firms get paid to help design petitions, hire and train circulators (unless they subcontract that to a firm that specializes in signature gathering), and develop messages.


A petition drive is not easy. You have to gather signatures only of registered voters. The same voter cannot sign two petitions. Your petition circulators all have to be registered voters. And every signature must go onto a petition from the correct county. There’s a lot that can go wrong.


A well-run petition campaign gathers the necessary amount of signatures, and then many thousands more in case some get tossed later. They’ll “scrub” their own petitions of duplicate signatures, non-registered voters, petitions that were filled out incorrectly by circulators.


Right to Life turned in more than 315,000 signatures. It takes about 258,000. That’s a cushion of more than 57,000 signatures. Right to Life figures it threw out 20,000 signatures, just didn’t turn them in, because they were somehow spoiled. The opponents of this drive are not going to stop it because it came up short of signatures.


That means opponents of the Right to Life drive will almost certainly have to come up with a different plan of attack if they’re going to stop this from becoming law. They could try to find a big technical challenge. Like how business groups tried to stop a union rights ballot question last year by arguing all the petitions were printed in thewrong font size.


That failed, by the way. The question they were fighting went to the ballot, and this initiative will almost certainly go to the Legislature.


The next step is for state elections officials to inspect the petitions. They’ll pull a random sample of signatures and compare that to the names in the state’s list of registered voters. If it passes muster, the Board of State Canvassers will certify the petitions. That will probably take a couple months.


At that point, the Legislature will have 40 days to vote for the initiative. If that doesn’t happen, the question goes to the ballot. Which is what abortions rights groups say should happen -- let the people decide.


But that’s not what’s going to happen.


The Legislature has already voted for this once. Right to Life has also gotten a majority of legislators to sign petitions. That effectively makes those lawmakers “co-sponsors” of the initiative and they’re unlikely to vote ‘no’ after they’ve put their names to a petition. So if, and more likely, when, the Legislature votes for it, it becomes law.


But that might not be the end of the matter.


Abortion rights groups can still put the question on the ballot via a referendum challenge. All they have to do is launch a petition drive -- and getting a referendum on the ballot actually requires fewer signatures than initiating a law. It has been done before. Abortion rights groups challenged the Medicaid-funded abortion ban in 1988, but failed at the ballot box.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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