Working through night, Michigan GOP finalizes plan to toughen petition drive rules

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder will decide the fate of a GOP proposal to toughen petition drive rules.

Lansing — A Republican plan to toughen petition drive rules is heading to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk despite complaints it could diminish the constitutional right of citizens to initiate legislation and ballot proposals.

The GOP-led state Senate approved the controversial legislation at roughly 6 a.m. Friday in a 26-12 vote after lawmakers worked through the night in their final scheduled meeting of the year. The House concurred with minor changes about a half hour later in a 57-47 vote.

The legislation would would limit the number of petition drive signatures that could be collected in any single congressional district. No more than 15 percent of signatures from any district could count toward totals required by the state to advance initiatives, constitutional amendments or referendums.

Supporters say the proposal will ensure a wider range of voters who live across the state have a voice in the petition process, but Democrats pointed out that all voters have that opportunity when a measure makes the ballot.

“I shouldn’t have to remind our elected officials how elections work,” said Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren. “This is a democracy, not a dictatorship. Taking power from the people is never okay.”

The legislation, which is headed back to the House for a final concurrence vote, would also require organizers to sort their petitions by congressional district when submitting sheets to the state. Filers would have to provide a “good-faith” estimate of the number of signatures from each district.

An amendment adopted in the Senate would modify petition sheets to make it easier for circulators to collect signatures by congressional district. The bill would remove a field that currently requires all signatures on a petition sheet to be from a single county, some of which are a part of more than one congressional district.

Sponsoring Rep. Jim Lower, R-Cedar Lake, said technical changes to the bill will make it easier to implement for the Secretary of State.

“I think it’s just good to get more transparency in this process and more input from voters on the front end,” he said.

The legislation would require each petition sheet include a 100-word summary that would be prepared by the state Elections Director. Each sheet would also have to specify whether the person collecting signatures is paid or a volunteer. Paid circulators would have to file an affidavit with the state before collecting signatures.

The business-backed proposal is widely seen as a response to a handful of successful petition drives this year that resulted in ballot campaigns that drew big donations from out-of-state liberal groups. The GOP-led Legislature also enacted and then quickly weakened two other initiatives to raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour and mandate employers provide paid sick leave.

Earlier drafts of the GOP legislation drew harsh criticism from several prominent Republicans who helped run petition drives in the past, including Bill Rustem, a former top advisor to Gov. Rick Snyder who this week urged the governor to veto the measure if it reaches his desk.

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, who has helped lead four separate petition drives, said Wednesday that versions of the legislation he had seen would make it “almost impossible” for citizens to initiative legislation and ballot proposals. 

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.

Snyder has declined to discuss most lame-duck bills until they reach his desk. "The governor will carefully review the final version of the legislation and then decide whether to sign it," his spokesman said Thursday in a blanket statement.