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Why you won’t see a LGBT-rights question on the MI ballot in 2016

The ballot campaign to add LGBT and women’s rights to the state constitution is kaput, at least for this year.

Suspending the campaign

The Fair Michigan campaign succumbed to the reality this past week that it was not going to get the establishment support and financial backing it needed to put the question of adding gender equality and LGBT rights to the state constitution’s equal protection clause.

“I am disappointed to have to announce we’re suspending our 2016 campaign,” Dana Nessel told a panel of journalists on the Michigan Public Television show Off the Record on Friday.

Nessel is one of the organizers behind Fair Michigan and was also a lead attorney behind the legal challenge to Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage.

That legal case, in fact, is sort of where the problems and infighting between Nessel and the LGBT establishment in Michigan began. In the beginning, many LGBT establishment groups - we’re mostly talking about the ACLU and Equality Michigan - never got behind the same-sex marriage legal challenge.

Nessel was also among those who saw the efforts to get the Republican-led Legislature to add LGBT protections to the state’s civil rights law (which is what the LGBT establishment wants to do) as equally faint-hearted and risk-averse and, instead, decided to try and amend the state constitution (which would require going to voters via the ballot).

Funding dries up

Even without the LGBT establishment support Fair Michigan pushed forward and went so far as to get their ballot language approved by the Board of State Canvassers.

But, when Michigan’s business community (which was necessary to finance the campaign) didn’t get on board, the effort succumbed to financial realities and a national strategy by LGBT rights groups that didn’t - and still doesn’t - include Michigan.  

A national strategy

There were big disagreements on the prospects for success of a ballot campaign. A debate that quickly went from heated to toxic. And, if it failed, what that would mean for efforts to adopt LGBT rights laws in other states.

The concern is that a ballot failure would set back the effort to change civil rights laws, not just in Michigan, but in other states and slow down the path to a congressional act.

National groups like Freedom for All Americans were really calling the shots here. They don’t think Michigan is ripe for a ballot success.

Actually, the national strategists don’t really like ballot questions, in general. The national strategy is to go to states where they think their chances are better, and to focus on legislatures. Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Arizona are likely the next targets.

2018, 2020...

So, now, we’ll see if Fair Michigan makes another run at the ballot in 2018.

Democrats might like that option in hopes of driving up progressive turnout in the lower turnout gubernatorial cycle.

Others say it probably won’t make much of a difference and maybe it makes more sense to wait til the next presidential cycle in 2020, when turnout will be higher.

But, as a practical matter, there is no real Michigan strategy to get something through the Legislature other than to wait for other state legislatures to go first and hope for a change in the zeitgeist.

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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