Elections panel set to review 3 petition initiatives amid legal uncertainty
Delta Township — Two anti-abortion petition initiatives could receive preliminary approvals next week, but with a caveat that hinges on the fate of lawsuits challenging new rules about the petition process.
The state Bureau of Elections provided the Board of State Canvassers on Monday with a new set of guidelines for people initiating a petition for the 2020 ballot. The guidelines comply with a May opinion by Attorney General Dana Nessel that declared as unconstitutional several parts of legislation approved at the end of last year.
The Board of State Canvassers is expected to use the guidelines to consider approvals for the forms of three statewide ballot initiatives: One that would prohibit dilation and evacuation abortions; a second that would ban abortions after a heartbeat has been detected; and a third that would require registered voters to be U.S. citizens, a qualification that is already required by law.
Board members expressed hesitation about issuing what amounts to conditional approvals for the initiatives due to multiple lawsuits that are challenging the current interpretation of the 2018 law.
“I want to make sure people are really clear about that, that this is complicated and may change mid-stream; it’s sort of an odd situation to be in,” said board member Julie Matuzak, a Democrat who requested the bureau include a larger “warning box” on the guidelines to notify parties of the current legal uncertainty of the rules.
The bureau plans to emphasize those warnings more clearly on the guidelines before next week's meeting, said Sally Williams, state director of elections.
“You’d hate to see people spend a lot of money and go through all this effort and (have) many, many, many voters signing these to have them not count because of what might be seen as a technicality,” Williams said.
The new law, if implemented as passed by the GOP-led Legislature, would make petition drives more challenging by limiting groups to collecting no more than 15% of their required signatures form any single congressional district. The law also required circulators to disclose whether they were being paid, to collect signatures on congressional district forms and invalidate certain signatures for false or fraudulent information.
Several parts of the law — including the 15% requirement — were declared unconstitutional by Nessel in May. But, last week, the state’s legislative leaders asked a judge to disregard Nessel's opinion and force the implementation of the 2018 petition rules they approved.
The League of Women Voters and Michiganders for Fair and Transparent Elections had filed suit against the law a couple weeks earlier, arguing the statute was unconstitutional and “will impose formidable obstacles to the exercise of direct democracy.”
Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who took office Jan. 1, had asked Nessel to weigh in on the rules and how they affected the rights of sponsors, circulators and voters. Nessel responded with a legal opinion that found many aspects of new rules would inappropriately limit voter participation in the petition drive process.
The Michigan Heartbeat Coalition is expected to change the formatting of its petition before next week to bring the form in line with Nessel’s ruling, Williams said.
The board is expected to rule on whether the formats for that petition and two others are in line with current form requirements at a meeting scheduled for next week. The bureau also will present 100-word summaries to board members that would be included on the pro-life petitions.
Next week, the board is expected to consider a motion signaling that signatures gathered under the current rules will be honored, regardless of future court rulings that may result in additional changes to the format.
“I want to get clear that, whoever’s circulating a petition, if they follow the rules that we explain today, those petition signatures will count” until or unless a court changes the requirements, said board member Norm Shinkle, a Republican.