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Republicans dismiss Tony Evers' call to let public vote on abortion, other matters

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Gov. Tony Evers proposes statewide initiative process

Gov. Tony Evers' proposal marks the latest effort by Democrats to challenge the state's more than 170-year-old law banning abortion.

Republican legislative leaders swiftly dismissed Gov. Tony Evers’ call on Wednesday to let voters propose and repeal state laws like Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban.

Evers’ proposal marks the latest effort by Democrats to challenge the state’s more than 170-year-old law, which hasn’t been enforced since the Roe v. Wade precedent established abortion as a constitutional right nationally. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade earlier this summer, catapulting reproductive rights into a major campaign issue leading up to the Nov. 8 election, where Evers faces GOP challenger Tim Michels, who has said he supports the state’s 1849 abortion ban.

Speaking at the state Capitol, Evers pointed to the phrase inscribed on the ceiling of the ornate governor’s conference room that reads, “The will of the people is the law of the land.” The Democratic governor’s proposal seeks to have the Legislature create a process whereby voters could collect signatures and file petitions to force votes on state laws or constitutional amendments.

“Right now, today, when it comes to reproductive freedom, the will of the people isn’t the law of the land, but it damn well should be, folks,” Evers said.

Evers called on the Legislature to take up the matter in special session on Oct. 4. Republicans, who control the state Assembly and Senate, have largely rejected Evers’ previous calls for special sessions, including one called in June to overturn the state’s abortion ban.

While lawmakers are required to gavel in a special session called by the governor, they do not have to hold debate and can immediately adjourn.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, called Evers’ request a “desperate political stunt.”

Anna Kelly, spokesperson for Michels, offered a similar sentiment, accusing Evers of trying to distract from his record on public safety. Michels has repeatedly criticized Evers as being soft on crime.

“Evers doesn’t want this election to be a referendum on his job performance on crime, inflation or education because he knows that people would reject his tired, old agenda,” Kelly said.

The proposal

Evers said the proposal creates “a pathway for Wisconsinites to repeal Wisconsin’s 1849-era criminal abortion ban,” but such a change could also allow a public vote to bypass lawmakers and enact new laws and constitutional amendments through referendums, or repeal laws passed by the Legislature.

More than 20 states currently have a process for such direct legislation, according to the governor’s office.

Evers’ proposal would create a statewide binding referendum process through a constitutional amendment, which would need to pass the Senate and Assembly in two successive sessions before going to voters in a referendum.

If passed, voters would be able to file petitions with the Wisconsin Elections Commission to seek a vote to create new laws or constitutional amendments or repeal existing laws. If enough signatures are collected and validated, the petition would force a vote on the matter at the next general election that is at least 120 days after the petition is filed. A simple majority vote would be required to pass the referendum.

“Republicans have time and time again ignored popular policy proposals supported by the majority of Wisconsinites, like access to safe and legal abortion,” said Assembly Minority Leader Greta Neubauer, D-Racine. “The constitutional amendment proposed today puts the people of Wisconsin first and gives them a direct avenue to make change.”

Wisconsin’s 1849 law bans abortions from the time of conception with one exception: to save the mother’s life. There are no exceptions for rape, incest or the health of the mother.

Johnson’s take

Evers said he had not spoken with Republican lawmakers on the matter as of Wednesday, but pointed to comments U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, made to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week in support of changes to the state’s abortion ban such as exceptions for rape and incest.

“My recommendation would be a referendum,” Johnson told the Journal Sentinel, adding: “But because this debate has been delayed for 50 years, people really don’t have, I think, the information they need to decide that question: At what point does society have the responsibility to protect life in the womb? Balancing the rights of a mother with the rights of an unborn child.”

But in response to Evers’ proposal, Johnson accused Democrats of “seeking to divide the public by exploiting the profound moral issue of abortion by politicizing it before an election that should be focused on the disastrous results of their policies and governance.”

“Because of the profound nature of this decision, we should not rush the debate, but instead allow enough time for a thorough and thoughtful discussion,” he said.

Kaul sues

Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul has sought to blunt enforcement of the law in court, arguing that subsequent laws make the state’s 1849 abortion ban unenforceable.

Kaul initially sued three Republican legislative leaders in June. But he changed the defendants to three district attorneys last week after the GOP legislators argued they aren’t properly defendants because they can’t enforce the law.

Two of the three district attorneys Kaul is suing instead — Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne — have signaled that they wouldn’t enforce the near-complete abortion ban. The third, Sheboygan County District Attorney Joel Urmanski, has said he would enforce it. Each of the district attorneys has jurisdiction in counties where Planned Parenthood provided abortions before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

The case is likely to end up before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which has a 4-3 conservative majority. The court majority could flip next year with an election to replace retiring conservative Justice Patience Roggensack.

Complete coverage: Supreme Court ends abortion protections; what's next for Wisconsin?

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Related to this story

The Wisconsin Election Commission has initiated the process of reviewing its rules for election observers, an issue that’s drawn attention and concern as Democrats and Republicans alike aggressively recruit partisan watchers to ensure election workers adhere to the law this November. Commissioners voted 5-1 on Wednesday to send a scope statement to Gov. Tony Evers laying out their intent to review the ways election observers can interact with people at the polls and what access observers are allowed to have. If approved by the governor, the statement will continue in a lengthy process that could last one to two years before new rules are enacted.

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