After the 2010 census, Michigan’s Chamber of Commerce worked to gerrymander the state’s districts to ensure a permanent Republican, business-friendly legislative majority. The effort worked so well that, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, Michigan’s state and U.S. Congressional districts make it one of the three states with “the most extreme partisan bias” in the country.1 In addition to creating their own favorable political conditions, the Chamber of Commerce also opened a back door allowing anti-choice organizations to enact abortion bans with little to no public oversight at all.
Michigan’s Chamber of Commerce doesn’t have a position on abortion rights.2 Despite the group’s official neutrality on reproductive freedoms, the combination of extremely gerrymandered districts and a unique provision in the state’s constitution allowing the legislature to pass citizen or special interest-initiated ballot proposals directly into law has once again given the Christian Right a way to ban a safe, effective abortion procedure. The ban won’t have to face the will of the voters and Michigan’s pro-choice governor, who won the 2018 election with more than 53 percent of the vote, will be powerless to veto it.
If a group that calls itself “Michigan Values Life,” which is backed by the anti-abortion organization Right to Life of Michigan, succeeds with its proposal to ban dilation and evacuation abortions, this will be the second time since the state’s districts were gerrymandered—and the fourth time overall—that the Christian Right has used a ballot proposal to subvert both reproductive rights and democracy itself.
Like eight other states, Michigan allows citizens to create or amend laws through an indirect initiative process. Once citizens or special interest groups submit sufficient signatures for a referendum, the legislature has the ability to pass (and possibly amend) any would-be ballot proposal before it goes to the voters.3 Unlike every other state that allows citizens to have a hand in creating state law, though, Michigan law stipulates that ballot proposals passed by a simple majority of the state legislature cannot be vetoed by the governor.4
In 2013, a different Right to Life of Michigan-backed group No Taxes for Abortion Insurance, used this process to ignore both popular opinion5 and a probable veto by Republican Governor Rick Snyder to pass a law banning both public and private health insurers from covering abortions unless people purchase a separate rider.6
This past December Right to Life struck again, submitting just 380,000 signatures—less than 10 percent of the state’s estimated adult population7—in support of its proposal to ban abortions using dilation and evacuation.8 If the State Board of Canvassers certifies that the group has gathered enough signatures to put the proposal before voters, Michigan’s House Speaker and Senate Majority Leader, both Republicans, have indicated they will be happy to pass it9 over the opposition of a clear majority of the state’s voters.10
The proposal is identical to a law approved by the state’s Republican legislature in June 2019, which Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, promised to veto. According to Jake Rollow, a spokesperson for the State Board of Canvassers, the Board hadn’t established a timeline for certifying the signatures as of January 14, 2020.
“It’s clever but it’s deeply undemocratic,” Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a University of Chicago law professor, told The Washington Post in October. “Through this loophole, they’re still able to pass laws as though the gubernatorial election never happened.”11 In a 2015 University of Chicago Law Review article, Stephanopoulos and his co-author Eric McGhee coined the term “efficiency gap” to describe “the difference between the parties’ respective wasted votes in an election, divided by the total number of votes cast.”12 The larger the gap, the less voice voters ultimately have at the ballot box and in the making of public policy.13
The gubernatorial election isn’t the only election result the state’s Republicans are able to ignore. Michigan’s gerrymander has led to an entire decade of minority rule, with Republicans retaining control even though a majority of the state’s voters have rejected them. In 2018 alone, Democratic state House candidates across Michigan received around 175,000 more votes than their Republican opponents. In Senate races, Democrats bested Republicans overall by roughly 117,300 votes. Despite those results, Republicans hold a 58-52 seat majority in the state House and 22-16 seat majority in the state Senate.14
“When you literally have a party in control of the legislature that didn’t win a majority of the votes, that’s a situation where you can draw a clear line and say gerrymandering caused major change in how the state policy is run,” Alex Tausanovitch, Director of Campaign Finance and Electoral Reform at the Center for American Progress, said in an interview with Political Research Associates.
“So if you hadn’t had gerrymandering in Michigan, if districts had been drawn fairly in the last cycle, it seems highly unlikely that these anti-abortion bills would be getting passed.”
Nationwide, evidence suggests that Republican gerrymandering has led to a notable rightward shift overall in state-level public policy. In their 2017 paper for Election Law Journal, exploring the impact of the “efficiency gap” on public policy, researchers Devin Caughey, Chris Tausanovitch, and Christopher Warshaw found that “a pro-Republican [efficiency gap] shifts the median state legislator markedly to the right,” and that “a one standard deviation change in the efficiency gap has a larger effect on state policy than a change in the party of the governor.”15
While Michigan is unique in allowing its legislature to bypass the governor to adopt a ballot proposal approved by less than 10 percent of its residents, it’s far from alone in having a heavily gerrymandered, abortion ban-happy legislature. Last June, The Guardian surveyed abortion bans passed by several gerrymandered state legislatures. Missouri, for example, whose legislative maps are cited in the article as an example of “sweetheart gerrymandering,” passed an eight-week abortion ban in 2019.16
And just like in Michigan, those states also have business interests to thank for gerrymandered districts that have allowed anti-abortion forces to run rampant. After losing to President Barack Obama in 2008, the GOP’s REDMAP plan was backed by Koch Industries, Walmart, Reynolds American, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.17
Fortunately for Michiganders’ reproductive rights, Michigan voters took the next round of redistricting out of state legislators’ hands in 2019 when they passed Proposal 2, which will create an independent redistricting commission. However, the fight for fair districts isn’t over; a coalition of Republican Party officials and lobbyists have filed suit to overturn that election result.18
It will also be difficult for voters to overturn any anti-choice ballot proposals the currently gerrymandered legislature chooses to pass into law. In an effort to protect the state’s yearly budgets from citizen initiatives, a provision in Michigan’s constitution prevents any law that includes a financial appropriation from being challenged at the ballot box.19 Thanks to that provision, if Republican legislators amend the proposals to include a monetary appropriation, they will effectively render the bans “referendum proof.”20
Nor is Right to Life alone in using bait and switch ballot tactics to try to end Michiganders’ reproductive freedoms. Another group, the Michigan Heartbeat Coalition, has mounted a ballot drive to institute a six-week abortion ban, and the Speaker and Majority Leader have also promised to hold a vote on that proposal should the organization achieve its signature goal.21 (On January 27, the Michigan Heartbeat Coalition announced it was extending its signature collection drive for the second time, to February 14.22) No further news about the status of the Coalition’s signature effort was available at the time this piece was published.
Author David Daley called Michigan’s gerrymander-assisted abortion restrictions a “complication of the Republican tent these days.” Daley, the author of Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count, added that the “unnatural bedfellows” relationship created between business and religious interests through the rise of the Religious Right beginning in the 1970s “hasn’t always been a perfect marriage.” As an example, Daley cited backlash by the business community in North Carolina when that state passed its infamous bill banning transgender people from using the correct restroom. “Once it becomes bad for business,” he said, “you begin to see the mainstream Chamber of Commerce tell Republicans to back off somewhat.”
The only way to truly diminish the stranglehold that business interests and the Religious Right have over statewide public policy, Daley added, “is structural political reform that gives voters more power but makes it harder for extremists to hold office,” such as the Voters Not Politicians proposal that Michigan voters approved in 2018. Similar reforms were passed the same year in Ohio and Missouri.
“I think what you’re seeing,” Daley continued, “is that people realize it’s going to take big, structural, courageous reform led by citizens to take the political system back from politicians who have rigged it to keep themselves in power and given themselves the ability to enact radical agendas without proper checks and balances from the voters.”
1 Laura Royden and Michael Lee, “Twenty Years Extreme Maps,” Brennan Center for Justice, 2017, https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/publications/Extreme%20Maps%205.16_0.pdf.
2 Michigan Chamber of Commerce, “2019-2020 Legislative Priorities,” accessed February 5, 2020, https://www.michamber.com/priorities.
3 National Council of State Legislatures, “The Indirect Initiative,” https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/the-indirect-initiative.aspx.
4 Jonathan Oosting, “Michigan Republicans poised to bypass Whitmer, ban abortion procedure,” Bridge, December 18, 2019, https://www.bridgemi.com/michigan-government/michigan-republicans-poised-bypass-whitmer-ban-abortion-procedure.
5 Amy Lynn Smith, “POLL: Michiganders largely oppose Right to Life ‘plan ahead for your abortion’ proposal,” Eclectablog, December 11, 2013, https://www.eclectablog.com/2013/12/poll-michiganders-largely-oppose-ri….
6 Ballotpedia, “Michigan Ban on Automatic Insurance Coverage of Abortion Initiative” (2014), accessed February 5, 2020, https://ballotpedia.org/Michigan_Ban_on_Automatic_Insurance_Coverage_of_Abortion_Initiative_(2014).
7 U.S. Census Bureau, “Quick Facts Michigan, United States, Population estimates,” July 1, 2018, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/MI,US/PST045218.
8 “Right To Life Of Michigan Submits Ballot Signatures To Ban Dilation And Evacuation Procedure,” 94.9 WSJM, Dec. 23, 2019, https://www.wsjm.com/2019/12/23/right-to-life-of-michigan-submits-ballot-signatures-to-ban-dilation-and-evacuation-procedure/.
9 Lauren Gibbons, “Michigan Republican leaders promise votes on anti-abortion initiatives if they clear signature threshold,” MLive, December 19, 2019, https://www.mlive.com/news/2019/12/michigan-republican-leaders-promise-votes-on-anti-abortion-initiatives-if-they-clear-signature-threshold.html.
10 Beth LeBlanc, “Majority of Michigan voters oppose proposed abortion restriction,” The Detroit News, June 6, 2019, https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/michigan/2019/06/06/poll-abortion-restriction-opposed-michigan-voters/1334853001/.
11 Reis Thebault, “An overlooked consequence of the Supreme Court’s gerrymandering rulings: Stricter abortion laws,” The Washington Post, October 22, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/10/22/an-overlooked-consequence-supreme-courts-gerrymandering-rulings-stricter-abortion-laws/.
12 Nicholas Stephanopoulos and Eric McGhee, “Partisan Gerrymandering and the Efficiency Gap” University of Chicago Law Review, 831 (2015), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2457468.
13 Tom Jacobs, “The Policy Consequence of Partisan Gerrymandering,” Pacific Standard, October 4, 2017, https://psmag.com/news/the-policy-consequences-of-partisan-gerrymandering.
14 Tom Perkins, “Once again, Michigan Dems get more state Senate and House votes, but GOP keeps power,” Metro Times, November 7, 2018, https://www.metrotimes.com/news-hits/archives/2018/11/07/once-again-michigan-dems-get-more-state-senate-and-house-votes-but-gop-keeps-power.
15 “Partisan Gerrymandering and the Political Process: Effects on Roll-Call Voting and State Policies,” Election Law Journal, December 2017. 16(4): 453-469.
16 Adrian Horton, Tom McCarthy and Jessica Glenza, “How gerrymandering paved the way for the US’s anti-abortion movement,” The Guardian, June 19, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/18/us-anti-abortion-bans-bac….
17 David Daley, “The decade Republicans hijacked our democracy, via the gerrymander,” Salon, December 30, 2019, https://www.salon.com/2019/12/30/the-decade-republicans-hijacked-our-democracy-via-gerrymandering/.
18 Brennan Center for Justice, “The State of Redistricting Litigation,” January 17, 2020, https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/state-redistricting-litigation-january-17-2020.
19 Rick Pluta, “Some laws shielded from voter referendums,” Michigan Public Radio, June 27, 2011, https://www.michiganradio.org/post/some-laws-shielded-voter-referendums.
20 Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta, “Lawmakers in Lansing back to referendum-proofing controversial bills,” Michigan Public Radio, December 4, 2017, https://www.michiganradio.org/post/lawmakers-lansing-back-referendum-proofing-controversial-bills.
21 Lauren Gibbons, “Michigan Republican leaders promise votes on anti-abortion initiatives if they clear signature threshold,” MLive, December 19, 2019, https://www.mlive.com/news/2019/12/michigan-republican-leaders-promise-votes-on-anti-abortion-initiatives-if-they-clear-signature-threshold.html.
22 Lauren Gibbons, “‘Heartbeat’ abortion ban group hopes to have signatures by Valentine’s Day,” MLive, Jan. 27, 2020, https://www.mlive.com/public-interest/2020/01/heartbeat-abortion-ban-gr….