Abortion vote returns spotlight to obscure Michigan board

·5-min read
Richard Houskamp, left, Anthony Daunt and Mary Ellen Gurewitz, members of the Michigan state Board of Canvassers listen to a speaker during a hearing, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022, in Lansing, Mich. The board is scheduled to decide whether a ballot initiative that seeks to enshrine abortion rights into Michigan's constitution should go to voters in November. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

A once obscure Michigan elections panel is back in the spotlight after rejecting a ballot initiative asking voters whether abortion rights should be enshrined in the state’s constitution and another to expand voting in the state.

The Michigan Board of State Canvassers deadlocked 2-2 on party lines on both initiatives Wednesday.

Abortion rights supporters have already said they will ask the state Supreme Court to intervene to place the measure on the November ballot. The organization backing the voting measure is expected do the same.

The board last came under national scrutiny in November 2020 when then-President Donald Trump and his supporters tried to convince Republican members not to certify Democrat Joe Biden's victory in the state. One GOP member abstained, but the other joined Democrats in voting to certify.

It highlighted the possibility that the panel — charged with largely clerical duties, not investigating elections — could become another hyperpartisan battleground.

The stakes of the abortion rights proposal are particularly high. Its backers are aiming to negate a 91-year-old state law that would ban abortion in all instances except to save the life of the mother.

Michigan’s 1931 law — which abortion opponents had hoped would be triggered by a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe vs. Wade in June — remains blocked after months of court battles.

WHAT IS THE BOARD OF STATE CANVASSERS?

Michigan's state constitution of 1850 created the board to handle administrative duties before and after an election. The board's structure has changed over time.

Current law provides for four members — two from each political party that earned the most votes in the latest secretary of state election. Michigan's 1908 Constitution was the first to mandate that a majority of the board could not be made up of members of the same political party. There's no process to break a 2-2 deadlock; typically that leads to a court challenge.

Election experts say similar structures arose elsewhere during the Progressive Era as reformers hoped a system of “mutual policing" would cut down on the influence of party machines on election outcomes.

Since then, federal courts have gained more legal authority to examine evidence and question witnesses, and to address claims related to state-level elections, said Kevin Johnson, executive director of the Election Reformers Network. The nonpartisan group advocates for ranked choice voting and independent redistricting among other election reforms.

“Mutual policing is a system that becomes risky in a hyperpartisan environment, so it needs some new thinking,” Johnson said.

WHAT DOES THE BOARD DO?

Michigan courts have repeatedly described the board’s responsibilities as administrative or clerical, while Michigan’s elected secretary of state is the chief election official.

But the board’s potential to dramatically influence elections has come to the fore in recent years.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, North Carolina, New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin have a board or a commission that fully oversees elections. Most of those states require a certain numbers of members from each major political party, according to NCSL research.

Key responsibilities of the Michigan board include: canvassing and certifying statewide elections, judicial elections and legislative elections that cross county lines; conducting statewide office recounts; and approving electronic voting systems.

The board meets after elections to determine official results based on reports from local clerks. The board members do not audit election results or investigate accusations of fraud.

The board also has a significant role in statewide ballot proposals. Aided by state elections staff, it reviews petitions seeking to put a proposal on ballots and approves the exact language that voters will see on those ballots.

Christopher Thomas, director of the Michigan Bureau of Elections for 36 years until retiring in 2017, said that process became more heated during his career as attorneys representing battling groups sought to win board members over, largely playing to their political alliances.

“It's unfortunate,” Thomas said. “I've heard board members say they’re there to represent their party, and I found that so antithetical to their purpose."

Still, prior to 2020, the dynamic rarely captured wide public attention.

WHAT CHANGED?

Following the 2020 presidential election, then-President Donald Trump and his allies targeted Michigan's Board of State Canvassers as part of a broad and futile attempt to challenge his loss in several states. Trump and his backers, despite no evidence of fraud, demanded that the board refuse to certify the results.

But ultimately, one Republican board member joined two Democrats in certifying Joe Biden's 154,000 vote victory in Michigan. The other Republican board member abstained from voting.

Election experts worry the unsuccessful attempt has fueled efforts to further politicize Michigan's canvassing system, pointing to people with a history of backing Trump's unproven claims of fraud getting appointed to county-level canvassing slots.

That heightens the chance of local canvassing boards deadlocking or members refusing to vote, undercutting voters' confidence in the system and even risking “agitation or spillover into the streets,” said Johnson, with the Election Reformers Network.

WHO'S ON THE BOARD NOW?

State parties provide a list of potential candidates to Michigan’s governor, who selects a member from those options. Four-year terms are staggered.

Both Republicans who held the party's seats in 2020 are gone. Aaron Van Langevelde, who voted to certify the results despite pressure from Trump supporters, was not nominated again by the state GOP when his term ended that winter. The board member who abstained from a vote in 2020, Norman Shinkle, resigned in June to run for a state legislative seat.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer selected Tony Daunt from three nominees submitted by the GOP to replace Van Langevelde. Daunt, a longtime party activist, was an outspoken critic of Trump’s bid to challenge the 2020 results.

Whitmer appointed Richard Houskamp, another longtime activist, to replace Shinkle. Houskamp told the Detroit Free Press in July that he hadn't seen any evidence of fraud in the 2020 election and that continuing to make those claims “is not healthy for the country."

One of the two Democrats who voted to certify the 2020 election results is still on the board: Jeannette Bradshaw, an electrician and elected leader within Detroit's International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The other, Julie Matuzak, resigned in December 2020 after 10 years on the board. Mary Ellen Gurewitz, an attorney who represented Michigan Democrats before the board in 2020, was appointed to replace her.