Gov. Tony Evers on Wednesday announced a new effort to repeal Wisconsin’s 173-year-old abortion ban, calling on lawmakers to vote on a proposal to allow voters to introduce statewide referendums.
Republican legislative leaders all but confirmed the proposal will go nowhere.
The Democratic governor signed an executive order calling the Legislature into a special session to take up a proposed constitutional amendment allowing voters to engage in a direct ballot initiative — a process by which voters can act outside of the Legislature to vote on proposed laws and constitutional amendments or repeal existing legislation.
Under Wisconsin law, Evers can call the Legislature into a special session, but he can’t compel lawmakers to take action on his proposal.
“Half the people of our state have fewer rights today than they did three months ago, and fewer rights than their mothers and grandmothers did before them, and that is BS,” Evers said during a news conference, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization effectively overturning a woman’s right to end a pregnancy.
The Dobbs ruling triggered Wisconsin’s abortion ban, which was passed in 1849 and offers an exception for the life of the mother, but not for cases of rape, incest or the mother’s health.
Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul are suing to overturn the ban in a case that will likely make its way to the state Supreme Court. The governor also called a special session in June, asking for a vote on a bill to repeal the ban. Republican legislative leaders gaveled in and out in a matter of seconds.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, accused Evers of pushing the issue of abortion in an effort to ignore “his failure to address rising crime and runaway inflation caused by his liberal DC allies.”
“Hopefully, voters see through his desperate political stunt,” Vos and LeMahieu said in a statement.
As he seeks a second term, Evers faces a challenge from Republican businessman Tim Michels, who supports banning abortion with no exceptions for cases of rape or incest.
“The 1849 law is an exact mirror of my position, and my position is an exact mirror of the 1849 law, as well, which has an exception for life of the mother,” Michels said in an interview on WISN-TV’s “Upfront” in June.
A Marquette University Law School poll released last week found that 61% of Wisconsin voters oppose the Dobbs decision, while 30% support it. According to the same poll, 83% of voters believe abortion should be allowed in cases of rape or incest, while 10% say it should not.
“On the ceiling of the governor’s conference room in the Capitol is a phrase I’ve often repeated over the last three years: ‘the will of the people is the law of the land.’” Evers said Wednesday. “Well, right now in Wisconsin, when it comes to reproductive freedom, the will of the people isn’t the law of the land — but it damn well should be.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 23 states have popular referendum processes, which allow voters to approve or repeal an act of the Legislature, and 24 states have citizen initiatives, which allow voters to put proposed statutes or, in some cases, constitutional amendments on the ballot.
In August, 59% of voters in Kansas voted against removing abortion rights from their state Constitution. In November, voters in Michigan, California and Vermont will vote on proposals to enshrine abortion rights, and voters in Montana and Kentucky will vote on proposals to restrict abortion access.
Evers’ proposal would allow Wisconsinites to potentially do the same, by petitioning the Wisconsin Elections Commission to add such questions to the ballot.
According to the governor’s office, if enough signatures were gathered and validated, a vote would be held in the next general election at least 120 days after the petition was filed. A simple majority vote would be required to decide the referendum.
Because the governor’s proposal comes in the form of a constitutional amendment, it would need to be approved by two consecutive legislative sessions, then approved by voters, to take effect.