Voter turnout in the 2022 midterm election far exceeded expectations. That’s due in no small part to the work of organizations like Public Rights Project (PRP), a fiscally sponsored project of Tides Center. PRP’s fellowship program supported efforts to increase ballot access in Michigan, and their efforts paid off. The 2022 midterm election turnout in Michigan made history, with 4.45 million voters.

Like the many voters who cited abortion as a pressing concern, PRP founder Jill Habig says that the erosion of core constitutional rights like abortion was a key motivation that drove her to create the Public Rights Project in 2017. The fight has taken on new urgency since Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the 2022 U.S. Supreme Court decision that effectively overturned the constitutional right to abortion.

“Since the Dobbs decision, we have really moved into rapid response mode. We are working with local and state government officials to help them use all of the legal tools at their disposal to shore up abortion rates in states where that is possible, and to reduce and challenge criminalization of abortion where bans have been passed,” says Habig. Michigan was one of approximately 20 states that had dormant laws or trigger laws — laws that were on the books but unenforceable while abortion remained a constitutional right. Habig says that in the months before the decision came down, their partners in Michigan called saying: “We need help. They’re going to overturn Roe. Michigan has a criminal ban.”

PRP has been working on reproductive justice issues since its founding, helping to organize state and local governments to use all of the legal tools at their disposal in the power and service of reproductive justice. Habig cites other important issues including the right to vote and the surge in wealth inequality as factors that spurred her to launch PRP in Oakland, California, with Tides serving as fiscal sponsor: “We think all of those forces are undermining our democracy in really fundamental ways, and all of those fights are now being pushed down to the state and local level. Our state and local government partners have a really important role to play in shaping the future of our democracy.”

A veteran of the district attorney’s office in San Francisco, Habig saw a gap between what the law mandated and what was actually happening on the ground, particularly in underserved and BIPOC communities. PRP works with state, local, and tribal governments to ensure that legal rights that exist on paper are enforced.

PRP takes most of its cues from the current needs of communities, hence their quick action following the fall of Roe, but the organization also focuses on the general health of the democracy. They work across the country to ensure that ground gained through the democratic process reaches the entire community using three core strategies: working with governmental offices to pursue high-impact cases; developing attorneys who can lead such efforts; and supporting community organizations. Their outreach includes liaising with these grassroots organizations to understand the real-life issues affecting people and building bridges between these organizations and the governments that can enforce the rights of these frontline communities.

Read the full article about the Public Rights Project by K.A. Dilday at Tides.