Gov. Evers calls special session to amend constitution to allow public vote on abortion law

MADISON, Wis. — Gov. Tony Evers has called for a special session of the Wisconsin State Legislature to take up a constitutional amendment that would allow the public to vote on a referendum concerning the state’s controversial 1849 abortion law.

The pre-Civil War law criminalizes abortion with no exceptions for rape or incest. Evers called a special session earlier this year to try and repeal the law, but the Legislature gaveled in and immediately gaveled out of the session without taking action.

WATCH: Wisconsin Republican lawmakers quickly gavel into, out of special session on abortion

The move comes after voters in Kansas passed a referendum protecting access to abortion in the state. A similar referendum is on the table in Michigan. Wisconsin’s constitution does not allow voters to introduce referendums to be voted on by the public. Evers called a special session in an effort to change that.

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

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, one of Wisconsin’s leading Republicans, suggested last week that voters should decide how the 1849 law is changed, an opinion that Evers shares.

“As of last week, this idea has new, bipartisan support in Wisconsin,” Evers said. “I agree with U.S. Senator Ron Johnson. There’s a sentence for you.”

The new special session is set to be held on Oct. 4.

To allow Wisconsinites to introduce referendums, the state would have to change its constitution. That is a multi-year process, that involves the Legislature signing off on the change in two different two-year cycles and voters approving it on a statewide ballot.

The Republican leaders in the state Senate and Assembly, Sen. Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, and Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester, issued a statement Wednesday following Evers’ call for the special session.

“Governor Evers would rather push his agenda to have abortion available until birth than talk about his failure to address rising crime and runaway inflation caused by his liberal DC allies,” they said. “Hopefully, voters see through his desperate political stunt.”

What would it mean to make it easier to amend the constitution?

UW-Madison law professor Heinz Klug says there is a reason why it is harder to amend the constitution — it is supposed to be a higher body of law than just statute.

Allowing for easier access to pass laws via referendum could make it easier for more changes to be made.

“It is a form of direct democracy, which representative democracy resists in the sense that representative democracy says that we manage this through our representatives,” Klug said.

If those representatives are the gatekeepers to new laws, it makes sense that Evers, a Democrat, would want to bypass the Republican-controlled Legislature to make those changes.

“This would give if you an escape rope for those who feel that somehow the democracy is no longer representing them,” Klug said.

He added that this notion might resonate with Democrats specifically, who have argued that the state’s legislative maps are an unfair partisan gerrymander favoring Republicans.