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Lansing — Michigan’s Republican-led House late Wednesday approved new rules for petition drives that would limit the number of signatures that could be collected from voters who live in any one part of the state.

The 11 p.m. lame-duck vote came after a series of revisions designed to address concerns raised by Right to Life of Michigan, an anti-abortion group that has routinely used the initiative process to enact laws and blasted an earlier version of the bill.

Sponsoring Rep. Jim Lower, R-Cedar Lake, said his amended proposal would bring new transparency to petition drives increasingly funded by out-of-state special interest groups, but critics argued it would make the process harder for average citizens.

“It saddens me that my own political party is advocating for it,” said Rep. Martin Howrylak, R-Troy. “When we say reforms, we really mean obstacles to the general public.”

Under the revised legislation now heading to the Senate, petition groups could collect no more than 15 percent of their signatures from any congressional district.  Groups submitting signatures to the state would have to show the Secretary of State they met the requirement.

Paid circulators, but not volunteers, would be required to file an affidavit with the state before collecting any signatures, which would otherwise be invalidated. And petition sheets would have to indicate if the circulator is paid or a volunteer.

“This will bring much needed transparency and accountability into our petition gathering process,” Lower said. “It also ensures statewide input on these types of proposals.”

The Iosco County Republican noted he lives in a rural area that petition circulators rarely mine for signatures, arguing voters across the state “deserve a fair shake in this petition gathering process.”

But Howrylak argued that where petition signatures come from is irrelevant. “All we’re talking about is the right to get the question on the ballot,” when voters across the state get "the opportunity to participate in the process," he said.

Michigan’s Constitution guarantees the right to initiate legislation or propose constitutional amendments through petition drives, but it does not put any limits on what part of the state signatures can be collected from.

Voters approved three separate ballot measures this fall, while the Republican-led Legislature adopted minimum wage and paid sick leave initiatives in order to make them easier to change, which lawmakers voted to do last week.

Democrats, who pounded their desks to applaud Howrylak’s criticism of the proposal, also argued against the bill, which Rep. Vanessa Guerra of Saginaw said has “so many constitutional defects … I can hardly count them.”

Rep. Youssef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, said the proposed rules “would have a chilling effect across the state and make it so people can no longer petition their government.”

The proposal would add several new requirements for petition committees seeking to put initiatives, constitutional amendments or referendums on the ballot.

Organizers would be required to sort petitions by congressional district when submitting them to the state for review. They also would be required to “certify” to the Secretary of State that no more than 15 percent of the signatures came from any one congressional district.

The petition drive proposal, introduced last week and backed by business groups like the West Michigan Policy forum, passed the House in a 60-49 vote.

“It will prevent fraud, it will better inform voters and it will require widespread support for ballot initiatives,” forum attorney John Bursch, a former Michigan solicitor general, said earlier Wednesday.

Michigan petition drives already will become more arduous in upcoming election cycles because record turnout this fall will boost signature requirements, which are adjusted every four years based on the number of midterm voters in statewide races. 

"I don't think it's too difficult," Lower said, noting Right to Life of Michigan now is officially "neutral" on the bill and no longer opposes it. "Even they agree that they can still get things on the ballot, and I'm comfortable that voters and people circulating these measures can."

Separately, the House approved by wide margins several petition drive reform proposals introduced last year by Democrats, including measures that would make it a misdemeanor crime for a circulator to knowingly mislead a voter about the contents of a petition and require paid circulators to wear a badge indicating their paid status.

Those measures now also head to the Senate for consideration next week in the final days of the lame-duck session. 

joosting@detroitnews.com

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