Language approved for audit, wage hike wage, abortion rights initiative

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Board of State Canvassers approved the summary language of three petition initiatives seeking a place on Michigan’s November ballot after a more than five-hour Wednesday meeting.

Canvassers spent hours debating the language in 100-word summaries that will describe each of the petitions as volunteers and paid signature gatherers present the petition to potential signers. The summaries approved Wednesday relate to election audits, minimum wage increases and abortion rights.

After the summary approvals, parties still need the approval of their petitions as to form before they can begin collecting signatures to earn a place on the November ballot. The canvasser approval is purely technical and does not cover the merit of the initiatives.

Norman Shinkle of the Michigan Board of State Canvassers listens during a meeting of the board in Lansing, Monday, November 23, 2020.

The audit petition led to nearly two hours of debate over whether it should be referred to as a “forensic” audit as sponsors desired, whether the audit’s use of public and private funds was clear enough, and whether there should be mention of the petition’s intention to require an audit of the 2020 election.

Several groups spoke out in concern over the proposal, with one Democratic attorney comparing the creation of a summary for the far-reaching consequences of the proposal to “trying to nail Jello to a tree.”

“This does nothing more than attempt to sow doubt in the integrity of the election process,” said Scott Eldridge, an attorney for the Michigan Democratic Party.

After a protracted debate over the use of the word “forensic,” Republican canvasser Tony Daunt pushed to remove the word and called the debate “absurd.” He said he was “exhausted by this topic,” the “poison of Donald Trump,” President Joe Biden’s recent election comments and a “political culture” unable to accept election results.

“I am so sick and tired of it,” Daunt said.

The petition would demand a forensic audit of the 2020 presidential election and set up criteria to trigger forensic audits in future elections.

The proposal would create an “audit board” made up of Republican and Democratic delegates who would hire a contractor to conduct the audit. It would include a review of all ballots and vote tallies; an examination of communications among the secretary of state, contractors and local clerks; an investigation of voter role irregularities; a review of all state voter registrations; a review of all election-related affidavits filed in the 2020 presidential election; and a review of the 10,000 oldest voters under 90 who voted for the first time in the 2020 election.

Members of the audit board also would sit on a state grand jury to determine if entities are “stalling” or “impeding” the audit, to subpoena evidence and to “issue warrants of arrest for contempt of the grand jury.” The language would shield people cooperating with the audit from civil or criminal liability but penalize uncooperative communities by withholding 10% of their state funding.

The funding sources outlined in the plan were not entirely clear, but organizers said the language was intended to allow the audit board to acquire private funding without disclosing sources to hire the audit contractor. Public funding would be required to facilitate the responsive actions needed in local governments to comply with the demands of the audit, said John DeRocha, one of the initiative’s organizers.

Canvassers also voted to approve the 100-word summary for a minimum wage increase proposal that would raise the state's minimum wage to $15 over five years by increasing wages $1 each year, starting with $11 per hour in 2023 and ending with $15 per hour in 2027. The current minimum is $9.87 per hour. 

The proposal also makes similar increases to tipped wage workers over a six-year period and removes the state’s ability to lower pay rates for minors, apprentices or people with disabilities.

A third proposal whose summary was approved 3-1 Wednesday would amend the state Constitution to “establish a fundamental right to reproductive freedom,” including decisions related to abortion, childbirth, prenatal care, miscarriage care, contraception and sterilization. The proposal would allow the state to regulate abortion “after fetal viability,” short of stopping an abortion when it is needed to protect the mother’s health or life.

The proposed amendment is being proposed in case the U.S. Supreme Court overturns or limits the 1973 court ruling in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide. Should Roe be overturned, Michigan’s 1931 abortion ban would take full effect. The constitutional amendment seeks to invalidate the 91-year-old law.

Republican and Democratic members of the board were divided on several areas of phrasing in the summary, including the use of "reproductive freedom" as an umbrella term to explain the different decisions protected by the proposal. The term ultimately was left at the beginning of the summary, but two other references were removed.

Republican members, including Canvasser Norm Shinkle, argued the term was prejudicial and preferred a listing of the different protected rights, such as abortion, as being sufficient and clearer. The two Democratic members countered it was an accurate description of the proposal.

Shinkle said if canvassers aren’t explicitly spelling out how this would change Michigan abortion law, “we’re not doing our jobs.”

New board member Mary Ellen Gurewitz, a Democrat, said it’s inaccurate to limit the effect of the proposal to simply abortion.

"This is an expansive proposal which covers many issues which have arisen and will arise," Gurewitz said.

The petition initiatives are part of an increasingly crowded initiative field, where  eight petition initiatives are seeking a place on the November ballot or adoption by the Legislature. Other initiative petitions deal with prohibitions on public health orders, tightened voter identification rules, caps on short-term loan interest, tax-incentivized education scholarship programs and sentencing law changes.