Wisconsin GOP legislators shut down special session on ballot initiatives in 30 seconds

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Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Tony Evers had called the special legislative session for Oct. 4 to discuss establishing a ballot initiative process in the state, which could be used to let residents vote on the state's abortion law.

A special session of the Wisconsin Legislature called by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to discuss a constitutional amendment that would allow voter referendums on state laws, and specifically the state's abortion law, was adjourned by Republican leaders of both houses immediately after it was convened on Oct. 4.

Wisconsin currently does not have provisions for legislators or voters to place initiatives for referendums on the ballot.

Republican Senate President Chris Kapenga⁩ convened and adjourned the Senate's special session in 16 seconds with no debate. The Assembly, also controlled by Republicans, followed suit by using a voice vote to adjourn its special session less than 30 seconds after it was convened.

Republicans had already said that they would gavel in and immediately gavel out after Evers called for the Oct. 4 special session last month.

"The people of this state should have the right to take a stand at the ballot box," Gov. Evers said in a statement. "But true to form, Wisconsin Republicans have refused to act. That's not leadership. And that's certainly not democracy."

An amendment to the Wisconsin Constitution providing for ballot measures would have established a pathway to repeal the state's 1849 abortion ban, which took effect in June after the Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization overturned the affirmation of a constitutional right to abortion in the 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade.

"It has always been an issue that people want it [abortion care] to be safe and legal and accessible when they need it," Democratic state Sen. Kelda Roys told the American Independent Foundation. "When someone they love needs it — and everybody has someone they love who will need an abortion — do we treat them like criminals, or do we want them to get that safe medical care they need?"

A poll conducted in August by the Marquette Law School reported that 65% of registered voters in Wisconsin believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and 79% of Republican voters agree that abortion should be legal in cases of rape or incest. The current Wisconsin law contains an exception only when the life of the pregnant person is in danger.

"There's such a huge disconnect between the elected representatives and the people, that the elected representatives won't even pass laws that have 70-80% support," Roys said. "We need to allow the people to have a voice in making the laws that govern us. Otherwise, we're really not a democracy."

However, Republican state Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos called Evers' call for a special session a "desperate political stunt" in a joint statement in September.

While Republican U.S Sen. Ron Johnson did not himself support Evers' call for a special session, he did recently voice support for a statewide referendum to allow the voters a chance to vote on exceptions to the state's abortion law.

Johnson, who has previously expressed support for exceptions in cases of rape or incest, released a sample referendum question for Wisconsin's abortion law Tuesday, the same day Republican leaders adjourned the special session.

The sample ballot, using anti-abortion language, asks, "At what point does society have the responsibility to protect the life of an unborn child?" and provides 10 options ranging from "From the moment of conception" to "Never - an unborn child has no right to life." It says nothing about exceptions, but the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Johnson's office had claimed questions could be added to the ballot.

Evers, who during his first term vetoed nine bills that would have restricted access to abortion care in Wisconsin, is running for reelection in November against Republican nominee Tim Michels.

"My veto pen is the last line of defense for abortion rights in Wisconsin," Evers tweeted on Oct. 4. "It's not a long-term solution, which is why I'm fighting to give power back to the voters and repeal this criminal abortion ban."

Michels repeatedly voiced support for Wisconsin's abortion ban during the Republican primary campaign. However, he recently changed his stance, stating he will support exceptions in cases of rape or incest.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.