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Michigan voters unlikely to be able to vote on LGBT-protections in 2016

It looks like we won’t be seeing an LGBT rights question on the statewide 2016 ballot.

Yet, it was not that long ago that it seemed a near-certainty that LGBT rights groups were ready to go to the ballot next year to amend Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act if the GOP-led Legislature refused to act.

The goal of groups like the ACLU and Equality Michigan has been to add protections for LGBT folks because, in Michigan, you can be fired from your job and be denied housing or services for being gay.

But, as MLive’s Jonathan Oosting reported last week, Michigan’s leading LGBT rights groups have pretty much decided against a petition drive to force the question; despite the fact that recent polls suggest anywhere from 68 to 77 percent of Michigan voters support expanding civil rights protections to the LGBT community.

The state’s leading LGBT rights groups are getting the word out that a ballot drive is not in the cards in order to tamp down the clamor in their community to do exactly that on the heels of the victory for same-sex marriage in the U.S. Supreme Court.

So why not a ballot drive?

A ballot drive would cost big bucks

“We know that if we go to the ballot, we have to be able to have the resources to win,” says Equality Michigan’s Sommer Foster.

A ballot campaign on a contentious issue like LGBT rights would likely cost $20 to $25 million. That’s because the cost of statewide TV ad buys would be high in a presidential election year like 2016. The movement doesn’t have that kind of money in Michigan, so the funding would have to come from still-skeptical national funders.

It’s never been done before

The 28 states that do offer LGBT protections have all done so through their legislatures. Adding protections has never been done via a ballot question, so there’s no template for success, and a loss would deliver the movement a setback in all arenas.

A backlash effect?

Some LGBT groups fear there could be a backlash effect among voters next year now that the Supreme Court has legalized gay marriage. Also, the question would draw out progressives who support gay rights, but it could also drive up turnout by gay rights opponents.

2016 could be a crowded ballot

Think back to 2012 when voters rejected all six questions on the statewide ballot. It’s axiomatic in politics that every additional question on the ballot increases the likelihood that they all fail. We’re already looking next year at two, three, maybe even four marijuana questions. There could also be questions on prevailing wage, re-districting, fracking, and insurance. In the face of all of that, LGBT groups say better to focus on getting LGBT-rights legislation through the Legislature -- even though that remains highly unlikely in the current environment.

So, national LGBT rights groups are turning their attention to states like Arizona, which also allows voter-initiated laws, where they think their chances are better. Also, they see opportunities in Indiana, Florida, and Georgia. They’ll also try to get more local human rights ordinances adopted around the country in an effort to build momentum for a federal LGBT civil rights act.

We’re told that an expensive ballot campaign in Michigan or any other state is a last resort in that effort, but it’s not ruled out for 2018. That would likely be less-expensive, but also a problem for LGBT advocates because off-presidential election cycles tend to be friendlier to Republicans, a subset of the electorate that still polls mostly anti-gay rights.  

But the Michigan GOP might also be concerned that a high-interest ballot drive could alter turnout patterns in a year when the governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and every seat in the state Legislature is at stake.

Republicans effectively used ballot questions to ban same-sex marriage to drive up conservative voter turnout across the country in 2004. Now that public opinion on the question has shifted, they just might find the tactic turned against them.  

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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