Redistricting, sick leave, pot petitions approved

Jonathan Oosting

Lansing – The Michigan Board of State Canvassers on Thursday unanimously approved for circulation three petitions seeking to create an independent citizen redistricting commission, require employers to offer paid sick leave and legalize all forms of marijuana.

The approvals give each group the green light to begin collecting signatures in an attempt to make Michigan’s 2018 ballot, a potentially herculean task given strict signature requirements and late summer starts in a state that quickly grows cold in the fall.

The “Voters Not Politicians” petition proposes amending the state constitution to create an independent citizen redistricting commission that would redraw legislative and congressional boundaries every 10 years, a task currently controlled by the Michigan Legislature.

State election officials described it as one of the most complex petitions they’ve seen, prompting a review that took more than a month and frustrated proponents. The seven-page petition would alter 11 sections of the Michigan Constitution and touch all three branches of state government.

The Michigan Bureau of Elections reviewed six versions of the petition before recommending approval of the final draft. Thursday’s board vote was delayed nearly an hour after canvassers noticed a printer’s affidavit attesting to required font size did not actually name the initiative.

Organizers, who secured a new affidavit while the board went on recess, acknowledged their inexperience but said they worked with attorneys to give shape to what they described as a grassroots movement to fight political gerrymandering.

“We started out from a Facebook post on social media and quickly turned into a thousand different strangers from across the state that have come together to create this language,” said committee president Katie Fahey.

Policy director Nancy Wang, an environmental law assistant professor at the University of Michigan, said over 50 volunteers worked to develop the proposal. Organizers held 30 town hall meetings and met with national policy experts, she said.

The group argues current Michigan laws allow whichever political party that holds power in Lansing to craft political boundaries that benefit their own candidates, rather than fairly representing the will of the state’s voters.

They began collecting signatures immediately after the meeting and plan to utilize volunteer circulators who have already been organizing. The committee will need to collect at least 315,654 valid signatures to make the 2018 ballot.

“We know we’re not eliminate partisanship from this process entirely,” Wang said. “But we wanted to limit the extent to which one party can control and gain a disproportionate political advantage through redistricting.”

The proposal would create a 13-member commission that includes four residents who self-identify as Democrats, four who self-identify as Republicans and five others who are “nonaffiliated” and independent.

Republican strategist Jamie Roe called the proposal an “abomination” and argued that the affidavit “chaos” at Thursday’s meeting shows “this is probably not the group we want to put in charge of anything.”

“I think what we got here today is a bunch of Democrats putting together an allegedly independent commission because they can’t win elections and believe they need to rig the system in order to do so,” he said.

Every 10 years, the Michigan Secretary of State’s office would randomly select commissioners from a pool of registered voters who submitted a publicly available application and were not disqualified by Republican or Democratic leaders in the House and Senate.

The proposal calls for a cooling-off period for partisan political candidates, elected officials, precinct delegates, lobbyists, consultants or political staffers who could not serve on the commission within six years of holding those jobs. The prohibitions would extend to parents, children or spouses of those individuals.

As a political consultant who worked as chief of staff for former Congresswoman Candice Miller until 2015, Roe noted he would be disqualified from serving on the commission.

“It would also take away the right to serve on this board for my parents, who had no role whatsoever in the decisions I made and my career choices,” he said. “And yet this would constitutionally deny them the right to serve.”

But grassroots supporters turned out in full force at Thursday’s meeting, erupting into applause after the board unanimously approved the form of the petition for circulation. Fahey broke into tears as she signed the first petition and thanked volunteers.

Emilie and Bob Baker of East Lansing, 77 and 79, said they attended a Voters Not Politicians town hall earlier this year, have donated to the committee and now plan to volunteer as petition circulators.

“It’s about taking it out of the hands of legislators and back into the hands of we the people,” Emilie Baker said. “Less manipulation of the voting process,” Bob Baker added.

The board on Thursday also approved a petition from the MI Time to Care Committee that seeks to create the Earned Sick Time Act, a proposal that prominent business groups oppose and are expected to fight.

The initiated legislation would require Michigan businesses to provide workers with paid sick leave they could use in case of physical or mental illness, injury or health conditions affecting themselves or a family member. Time off also could be used by victims of domestic violence and parents attending school meetings.

The group will not immediately begin collecting signatures. Organizer Danielle Atkinson, founding director of the group Mothering Justice, said she’ll discuss the effort in more detail next month.

Thursday’s approval is “the first step in getting on the ballot next year, so we’re excited about getting the petitions printed and getting our volunteers out there on the streets,” she said. “Everyone gets sick, but unfortunately not everyone has time to get well.”

A third petition, sponsored by a group called Abrogate Prohibition, would amend the Michigan Constitution to fully legalize marijuana for personal, recreational, agricultural, commercial and industrial uses.

The proposal would prohibit the state from levying any taxes, fines or fees or implementing any regulations to restrict the use of marijuana. It does not propose any restrictions on youth use, packaging or driving.

The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol is already circulating pot legalization petitions and said Wednesday it is poised to pass the 200,000-signature mark this week. The group needs 252,523 valid signatures to put its initiated legislation on the 2018 ballot but is aiming to collect 366,000 as a buffer.

Abrogate Prohibition would need to collect 315,654 valid signatures to make the ballot because it is proposing to amend the state constitution.