Michigan bills would toughen rules to get proposals on ballot

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Proposed legislation would change Michigan's rules for how signatures are gathered on citizen-initiated proposals for the ballot.

Lansing — One week after voting to weaken citizen-initiated minimum wage and paid sick leave laws backed by liberal groups, Michigan House Republicans are considering new rules that would make the petition process more difficult.

Sponsoring Rep. Jim Lower, R-Cedar Lake, said his proposal, set to go before the House Elections Committee on Wednesday, is designed to prevent deception in the petition process, promote transparency and ensure voters from across the state have a voice.

But a prominent Democratic critic contends the lame-duck legislation would chip away at citizen initiative rights guaranteed under the Michigan Constitution.

The bill would prohibit petition campaigns from collecting more than 10 percent of their voter signatures in any one of the state's 14 congressional districts, limiting their ability to focus collection efforts in high-efficiency, high-population centers.

Before collecting any signatures, a petition circulator would have to submit an affidavit to the state indicating if he or she is a volunteer or is being paid. Failure to do so would void any signatures that circulator collects. 

The legislation would also require each petition sheet to indicate whether the circulator is paid or a volunteer, and signatures would be tossed from any circulator who provides an incorrect address or fraudulent information.

Lower said the legislation was inspired by his own conversations with voters earlier this year about ballot proposals they eventually approved on Nov. 6 to legalize recreational marijuana, create a redistricting commission and guarantee certain voting and registration rights.

“Nobody knew that they were largely paid for by out-of-state special interest groups,” Lower said of the ballot proposals. “So I felt that we needed the transparency on that and needed the statewide buy-in that’s in my legislation.”

Democrats criticize move

The legislation does not change any campaign finance disclosure rules, and the “cumulative effect” of the newly proposed rules could diminish petition rights, said Mark Brewer, the former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party who is now an election attorney and represented several ballot committees this fall.

“That’s what the Republicans are after — just to make this so difficult and so expensive to take away the right of initiative,” Brewer said.

The proposed limitations on the number of petition signatures that could come from a single congressional district are similar to provisions in “a lot of other states," Lower said.

“I live in a more rural area of the state,” he said, “and I think that it’s important that my voters have as much buy-in to a proposal before it goes on the ballot as, say, Detroit for example.”

Michigan petition drives will already become more arduous in upcoming election cycles because record turnout this fall will boost signature thresholds by nearly 90,000. The levels are adjusted every four years based on the number of midterm voters.

Groups pushing initiated legislation will need to collect 340,047 valid signatures to advance measures in 2020 and 2022, up from 252,523 this year, according to the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office.

Putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot will require 425,059 signatures, up from 315,654 for 2018. And forcing a referendum vote on an existing law will require 212,530 signatures, up from 156,827 in 2016 and 2018.

The proposals come after a cycle featuring at least five high-profile petition drives. Most of them where backed by liberal groups seeking to get around Republicans who had total control of Lansing the past eight years, a reign that will end in January when Democrats take over top statewide offices.

The Michigan group that pushed a paid sick leave initiative has promised another petition drive for 2020 if term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signs a bill the Legislature sent him last week to significantly scale back the law.

Lawmaker defends proposal 

But Lower said his bill is not a partisan reaction to the recent glut of liberal petition drives, noting the GOP-led Legislature this year also adopted a conservative initiative to repeal the state’s prevailing wage law for construction workers.

“This would apply equally … whether it’s a conservative initiative or a liberal one,” he said.

The legislation would also require petition sheets to contain a 100-word summary of the proposal in 12-point font. Current law requires a header in all capital letters and 14-point font along with the full text of the proposal in 8-point font.

Democrats proposed legislation in 2017 that would make it a misdemeanor crime to knowingly lie or misrepresent the contents of a petition to compel voter signatures. The bills, also set for committee consideration Wednesday, were inspired by misleading sales pitches on prevailing wage repeal petitions.

The new GOP bill is “a poorly written, last-minute version of something we’ve been pushing for the last year and a half,” said Rep. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield. “It’s almost ungovernable in several different ways.”

The Michigan Bureau of Elections does not count every signature submitted by ballot groups before recommending whether the state Board of Canvassers should certify petitions. Instead, it reviews a random sample to estimate the total number of valid signatures collected.

“What if the sample is all from one congressional district? How would they be able to determine how many signatures come from each?” Moss said. “Unless we’re going to put a large amount of funding to the Secretary of State to manage this, their bill is totally unworkable.”

Lower called the sample-size concern a “red herring” that opponents are “throwing up” to stop the bill. The elections bureau could “easily pull a statistically valid sample” to accurately measure signatures by congressional district, and the legislation would not impact an existing process to challenge any initial determination, he said.

House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, has not reviewed specific details of the legislation and will allow the Elections and Ethics Committee to “do its work and vet the legislation,” said spokesman Gideon D’Assandro.

But Leonard is “open to the idea of reform to protect voters, especially with reports every year about citizens being misled about petitions so paid gatherers can boost their totals.”