On September 21st, Governor Tony Evers signed an executive order calling for a special session of the Wisconsin State Legislature to create a statewide referendum process as well as a constitutional amendment. This proposal is what he calls a “pathway” for residents to propose citizen ballot initiatives that could lead to the repeal of Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion law that bans nearly all abortions including cases of rape and incest. According to the governor, this move is warranted because the legislature “repeatedly rejected or altogether refused to consider policies that have broad and bipartisan public support of the people of the state.”
In a press release about the session, the governor references how throughout the year the state’s Republican majority legislature routinely opposed his measures to protect abortion rights in Wisconsin. Before the Supreme Court decision, Evers called for a special session to repeal the ban and on June 28th the governor, alongside Attorney General Josh Kaul, announced a lawsuit challenging the ban. The suit until recently has been delayed due to insistence from the state GOP that the original defendants being part of the legislature had to be replaced since they cannot enforce the law, so instead AG Kaul is now suing three district attorneys.
The proposed statewide referendum process for a citizen initiative is another avenue Evers is utilizing in order to repeal the ban. But what would this mean for Wisconsin voters? According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) a citizen initiative is a process that enables citizens to bypass their state legislature by placing proposed statutes and, in some states, constitutional amendments on the ballot; and a popular referendum process allows voters to approve or repeal an act of the legislature.
State residents have in the past conducted ballot petition initiatives at a local level to compel a referendum vote according to the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau. However, Wisconsin does not have either of these direct democracy initiatives available to its voters on a statewide level. Evers in a news conference stated: “If Republican legislators aren’t going to uphold the will of the people, then the people of the state should have the right to take a stand at the ballot box.” The Republican majority in the legislature indicated that they have no intention of engaging with the plan.
However, this proposal by the governor comes after United States Senator for Wisconsin Ron Johnson stated that he recommends changes be made to the 1849 ban and favors letting voters decide whether or not to add exemptions for rape or incest to it.
The move also comes after a recent Marquette University Law School poll that surveyed Wisconsinites across the political spectrum and found that 61 percent opposed the decision by the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade; 55 percent support abortion right candidates; 90 percent say their state should allow a woman to obtain a legal abortion in cases of rape or incest; 82 percent say states should not be able to make it illegal to travel to another state to obtain a legal abortion; and 76 percent, say states should not be able to make it illegal to order from out-of-state prescription medication that induces an abortion.
The special session will take place on Tuesday, Oct. 4th at 10 a.m. to address LRB-6542/1 and LRB-6543/1 which relates to reserving to the people the power of referendum to reject acts of the Legislature and the power of initiative to propose and approve at an election laws and constitutional amendment.