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Fight over veto-proof abortion law not over; groups going to work to overturn

It's Just Politics with Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta

What is it about Decembers in Lansing? Last year, it was right-to-work. This year, the controversy is over a petition initiative, a veto-proof law that will require people to buy separate insurance for abortion coverage. It could not be part of a basic health insurance package in Michigan.

It was an initiated law, put before the GOP-led Legislature by the very, very influential anti-abortion group Right to Life. As we’venoted before on It’s Just Politics, Right to Life is virtually unrivaled in its ability to organize a petition campaign, and to squeeze votes out of the Legislature, especially when Republicans are in charge.

So, that’s it, right? Law is passed. All done.

Well, not so fast. Because what is begotten by a petition drive can be challenged by a petition drive. Michigan’s pro-choice movement thinks it can take down this new law with a referendum. In fact, meetings have started to try to organize a ballot drive.

But, they’ll have to get down to business soon. The Legislature officially ended its session today at noon which means they have 90 days to get 161,305 signatures of registered Michigan voters to suspend the law and put a referendum on the ballot. That ends up being 1792 signatures every day.

And they can’t start quite yet because they haven’t submitted petition language to the state elections board.

But, as we said, groups are meeting, hoping to pull together money and a coalition -- both state and nationally -- to put the question on the November 2014 ballot. They’re also hoping for aid and comfort from other groups, not just out of the pro-choice movement, to try and smack down the Legislature.

Here’s what Shelli Weisberg of the ACLU of Michigan had to say: “This is not about, you know, the constant war on women, this is not about pro-life groups versus pro-choice, it’s even not about partisanship. This is the medical community, the legal community, its workers, its nurses, its retirees who are just really sick of the constant overreach of this legislature into our personal and private lives. So, we’ve got a lot of momentum to move forward and send a message that we want them to stop doing this kind of stuff.”

So, attempting to create an enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend coalition. And, this begs the question: What if the opposition to this new law succeeds? What if a referendum makes it onto the ballot?

Well, we saw something like this in 1987 when Right to Life succeeded in initiating a ban on abortions funded by Medicaid. Planned Parenthood launched a referendum drive on that law and got it on the 1988 ballot, but lost 57 to 43 percent. Now, let’s be clear, 1988 was a different year than 2014, politically speaking: It was a presidential year that had a big Republican turnout, sweeping George H.W. Bush into office.

Presently, the ACLU says its polling shows this new abortion insurance law is not popular. The drive to overturn the law calls the measure an "overreach," meddling in private insurance with no exceptions for rape or incest. The campaign to uphold the law, if it comes to that, will focus on a single word. Well, sort of a word: Obamacare. Their message will be: Ratepayers shouldn’t subsidize abortions under the federal health care law; they’ll try to make this a referendum on the Affordable Care Act.

And, of course, there are the cold, stark partisan calculations. How would this question on the ballot affect turnout? There are races in Michigan in 2014 for governor, US Senate, the Congressional delegation and the entire state Legislature.

Turnout and money will be an issue for both sides. But, this is a bigger consideration for Democrats. Is money spent on this ballot drive money that might otherwise be spent winning those aforementioned races? The question will be: How does everything fit into the equation?

It’s election math.

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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