Right to Life blasts GOP plan for petition drive rules

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
A petitioner, left, asks voters to sign petitions during lunch at Campus Martius Park in 2017. A group seeking to repeal Michigan’s prevailing wage construction law submitted enough valid signatures to advance its measure to the state Legislature this year after failing to do so in 2015, according to elections staff.

Lansing — Right to Life of Michigan is fighting a Republican proposal to toughen petition drive rules and putting pressure on GOP lawmakers who typically align with the anti-abortion group.

The state House Elections Committee advanced the measure Wednesday morning in a 6-3 vote, but chairman Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, said “compelling” testimony from Right to Life could prompt changes on the floor.

The legislation would prohibit petition campaigns from collecting more than 10 percent of their voter signatures in any one of the state's 14 congressional districts. It would also require all circulators — paid or volunteer — to register with the state and sign an affidavit before collecting any signatures.

Right to Life of Michigan, which has run successful petition drives for initiatives adopted by Republican legislators, had more than 10,000 volunteers collecting signatures for its successful 2013 initiative to limit abortion coverage in health insurance policies, said legislative director Genevieve Marnon.

“Can you appreciate 10,000 individual volunteers registering with the Secretary of State? We have little old ladies who take one sheet home for their adult children (to sign) and turn it in,” Marnon said. “We get thousands and thousands of sheets of paper, so this becomes a nightmare, an administrative nightmare.”

Citizens who previously participated in petition drives, including a measure voters approved last month to expand voting and registration options, raised similar concerns.

The rules could discourage volunteers, said Erica Peresman, who helped organize for the Promote the Vote petition drive. Some volunteers collected many signatures, while others only wanted to get their colleagues or family to sign petitions, she told lawmakers.

Tim McKay, 70, a local resident of Corktown stands with a petition in front of the fire station.

“Under this bill, all of them would have to file an affidavit with the Secretary of State in order to donate their time and other resources to talk to voters about ways to make our state better,” Peresman said. “Many volunteers, confronted with this burden, are just going to say, 'No thank you.'”

Supporters say the proposal is designed to increase state regulations for petition drives that are increasingly funded by out-of-state interest groups. These include measures that made the Nov. 6 ballot, along with minimum wage and paid sick leave initiatives the GOP-led Legislature adopted and last week voted to weaken.

The legislation would 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.

The requirements would increase the integrity and transparency of the petition process, said Rep. Jim Lower, R-Cedar Lake.

But most debate focused around the 10 percent cap on the number of petition signatures that could be gathered in a single congressional district, limiting organizers’ ability to focus collection efforts in high-population centers.

“I come from a rural area and the plan would ensure that at least a portion of the signatures would come from around the state,” Lower said. “We’d get more statewide buy-in before the legislation is put before the Legislature for our consideration or ultimately put on the ballot for voter consideration.”

Critics argue the signature requirement would infringe on the right to petition guaranteed in the Michigan Constitution and limit the ability of citizens directly affected by an issue to change laws by mounting a statewide campaign.

“You don’t have rules that if a legislator from the Upper Peninsula introduced a bill the Legislature can’t consider it unless there’s a co-sponsor from the Lower Peninsula,” said Nick Ciaramitaro of Michigan AFSCME Council 25. “People in the whole state get to vote on these things.”

Business groups such as the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Manufacturers Association that opposed recent minimum wage and paid sick leave initiatives are supporting the push for new petition drive rules.

“It will prevent fraud, it will better inform voters and it will require widespread support for ballot initiatives,” said attorney John Bursch, a former Michigan solicitor general representing the West Michigan Policy Forum,  a business group that discussed potential petition reforms at its fall convention.

Rep. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, argued that determining compliance with the 10 percent threshold would be an “unworkable” requirement for the Michigan Secretary of State's office, which does not count each signature submitted by petition groups but instead estimates validity after reviewing a smaller sample.

Mike Batterbee from the Secretary of State’s Office acknowledged the proposal “does pose a bit of a problem” for Elections Bureau staff. Some ballot proposal groups submit tens of thousands of petition sheets, he told lawmakers.

“What could you possibly do to implement something from the Legislature that is totally unworkable, and we put into your lap?” Moss asked.

“I’m not quite sure yet,” Batterbee responded. “I don’t know that it’s impossible, but it might require handling each individual (petition sheet) multiple times."

If the goal is to ensure petitions are signed from voters across the state, Batterbee suggested replacing the proposed ceiling with a floor by requiring a minimum percentage of signatures be collected from each congressional district.

“A minimum threshold may be more workable,” Batterbee told lawmakers. “We wouldn’t have as large of a problem with pulling the random sample.”

The Republican majority on the committee adopted an amendment by Moss that would cut the 10 percent congressional district cap and instead require a floor of 3 percent from each district.

Bursch told lawmakers that prescribing a floor instead of a cap could make the proposal more susceptible to a court reversal. Four other states — Florida, Missouri, Mississippi and Nevada — limit the number of signatures that can be collected in a single congressional district.

“I’m confident that if Florida can get this right, Michigan can get this right, too,” Bursch said.

Lower's proposal was introduced last week but fast-tracked during the lame-duck session, which is set to run through next week.

The panel on Wednesday also advanced separate bills introduced last year by House Democrats, including measures that would make it a misdemeanor crime for a circulator to knowingly mislead a voter about the contents of a petition, require paid circulators to wear a badge and prohibit firms from paying circulators per signature collected, allowing only hourly wages.