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A record-number of abortion related questions are on states' ballots this year

2022 is set to be a record year for ballot questions related to abortion rights. In this photo, Diane Spiteri holds her absentee ballot before dropping it off at the city clerk's office in Warren, Mich., on Wed., Oct. 28, 2020.
David Goldman
2022 is set to be a record year for ballot questions related to abortion rights. In this photo, Diane Spiteri holds her absentee ballot before dropping it off at the city clerk's office in Warren, Mich., on Wed., Oct. 28, 2020.

Updated July 20, 2022 at 10:22 AM ET

LANSING, Mich. — There's an unprecedented number of abortion-related questions on the ballot this year with voters in at least five states set to decide on varying proposals. That number could grow to as many as seven if abortion-focused measures in Michigan and Colorado secure final approval.

Activists both for and in opposition to abortion rights knew Roe v. Wade could be overturned, so they've been preparing for years to bring the issue directly to voters, says Corinne Rivera Fowler, policy director for the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a progressive advocacy group.

"Advocates on both sides of the issue saw the writing on the wall," she says.

In Michigan, more than 750,000 registered voters signed a petition that would have Michiganders vote on adding the right to abortion to the state's constitution. That's a record high in the state, according to figures provided by campaign organizers.

Assuming the signatures are certified as valid, it's more than enough to bring the proposal to November's ballot. If that happens and if a majority of Michiganders vote yes, the amendment would nullify a 1931 state law that bans abortions unless they're done to save a woman's life.

Michigan's impending showdown comes as the overturn of Roe v. Wade pushes the battle over abortion to states and, in some cases, directly to voters.

Measures for — and against — abortion rights

That's why the Kentucky General Assembly placed a measure on November's ballot to add a provision stating the state's Constitution does not guarantee a right to abortion.

Abortions are happening currently in Kentucky after a judge temporarily blocked enforcement of laws there that ban most abortions.

But approval of the constitutional amendment would be key for abortion opponents going forward to protect any anti-abortion laws from legal challenges.

"If this amendment passes, the decisions on how and when to regulate abortion will now be placed in the hands of their elected representative, not judges, so it will be a democratic process," says Republican state Rep. Joe Fischer, the proposal's lead sponsor.

Kansas voters are deciding next month on a similar constitutional change supported by anti-abortion advocates. But, in Vermont and California, voters are facing proposals this fall that would do the opposite after lawmakers advanced amendments to have state constitutions explicitly guarantee abortion rights.

There's also a November ballot proposal referred by Montana's legislature asking voters there to approve a state law requiring medical care for infants born alive after attempted later-term abortions, even though experts say that scenario is extremely rare. And, infanticide is already illegal.

And in Colorado, advocates are trying to gather enough signatures by an Aug. 8 deadline for a November ballot initiative that would criminalize abortion through state law. Colorado's among nearly half of states where citizens can attempt to bypass their legislature by petitioning for measures to change laws or state constitutions.

Rivera Fowler, from the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, welcomes the process, calling it one of the most direct forms of democracy. She sees it as a plus for progressives in states like Michigan where the Republican-led Legislature has blocked attempts to strengthen abortion laws.

"Our political process has become so polarized, narrow-minded, to the point where legislators are much more beholden to their political party instead of the people in their community," she says. "So, the ballot measure is really our tool for liberation."

Eric Lupher leads a nonpartisan think tank called the Citizens Research Council of Michigan. He's studied Michigan ballot initiatives and says in the last few decades, there's been a shift from those mostly related to taxes, to those focusing more sharply on social issues.

"Really what we're seeing here in Michigan is they can't get their issues through a divided legislature," he says. "They can't promote their issues in sort of the conventional ways. So this is a backstop."

And Lupher notes that proposed constitutional measures like the one in Michigan are more permanent because they're harder to change than state law. If approved by voters, those initiatives could influence statewide abortion policies for decades to come.

Copyright 2022 WKAR Public Media

Sarah Lehr is a politics and civics reporter for WKAR News.