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Senate vote may handcuff marijuana legalization effort

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The Michigan Senate voted Thursday to place a hard cap on the 180-day signature collection window for statewide ballot proposals, a move that may snuff out a rule change sought by a pro-marijuana legalization group.

The legislation, now headed to the state House of Representatives, would eliminate a part of state election law allowing petitioners to challenge the presumption that signatures are “stale and void” if they are collected outside a 180-day period.

The Republican-led Senate approved the bill in a 26-10 vote, mostly along party lines.

MI Legalize, an activist-led group seeking to put a marijuana proposal on the November ballot, passed its original collection deadline in December but is asking the state to revisit a 30-year-old policy for proving the validity of older signatures.

Sponsoring Sen. Dave Robertson, R-Grand Blanc, said Thursday that his bill is not about the marijuana proposal or any other specific petition drive.

“It’s very simple: 180 days means 180 days,” Robertson told The Detroit News. “We’re not changing it. We’re affirming it.”

State law allows petitioners to prove the validity of older petition signatures, an ability that Robertson’s bill would eliminate. Under a 1986 policy adopted by the Board of State Canvassers, petitioners must provide an affidavit from each signer or their local clerk that they were registered to vote during the 180-day window.

MI Legalize chairman Jeff Hank has argued as a private attorney that the policy is arduous and should be updated because new technology has made the information readily available through the statewide Qualified Voter File.

Bureau of Elections Director Chris Thomas has prepared a draft policy update that the Board of State Canvasses may consider. But the Senate bill would make the update moot.

“They decided to pass a bill to stop that process,” said state Sen. Coleman Young II, D-Detroit. “They’re not doing this because of legitimate reasons; they’re doing this simply because they don’t like the issue of the legalization of marijuana.”

The Bureau of Elections opened its proposed policy update to public comment through Jan. 8, and the Board of Canvassers was expected to consider the matter in the coming weeks.

Robertson, who chairs the Senate Elections Committee, said the Legislature should be in charge of setting any such policies.

“From my perspective, it’s a defense of the Legislature’s role in the process,” he said. “We set and make the law, not bureaucrats.”

MI Legalize, which continues to collect signatures and raise money for a potential ballot proposal, does not believe the legislation would retroactively limit its ability to challenge older signatures under the current policy.

Hanks said MI Legalize is considering legal action if the state policy is not updated or if the state enacts a new law.

“It’s a shame that the Legislature’s answer to the door we’ve opened was to close it on everyone else,” said Hank. “Passing this law would make it almost impossible for a normal citizens’ group to have ballot access.”

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said the bill is intended to clarify existing law and ensure that everyone plays by the same rules, as set by the Legislature.

“It is 180 days, and we’re not going to allow anybody who is unelected to say any different,” Meekhof said.

joosting@detroitnews.com