Michigan law restricting talk about elections is dead

Detroit News staff and wire reports

Ann Arbor — The state of Michigan won’t enforce a law that blocks local government officials from talking about a ballot question before an election, under a deal approved Thursday by a federal judge.

U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara stopped the law in February with a preliminary injunction, saying the so-called gag order was vague and violated free speech rights. Now, nearly three months later, the Secretary of State’s office said it won’t fight the lawsuit any further.

“County commissioners and other local leaders will be pleased to know they can continue to inform their constituents about ballot issues in the same fashion that they have done for years,” said Matthew Bierlein, an elected commissioner in Tuscola County.

The law, passed in 2015 by the Republican-controlled Legislature, was intended to stop local officials from distributing information about ballot proposals, such as property tax questions, 60 days before an election. Supporters said it would stop biased interpretations. Michigan law already prohibits officials from using tax dollars for advocacy.

Dearborn Mayor Jack O’Reilly has said the law was trying to “solve a problem that didn’t exist.”

The Secretary of State’s office enforces election law, although it took no position on the gag order when it was approved by the Legislature, spokesman Fred Woodhams said.

Don Wotruba, executive director for the Michigan Association of School Boards, said school districts are “very cautious” about how they lay out facts to voters about bond issues and property tax increases in taxpayer-funded literature.

“If we say that a building is X age or needs replacement or there’s health and safety concerns ... we’re just making statement of what a school district will do with the money and why it needs to be done and then letting the voters make up their mind,” Wotruba said Thursday.

Detroit News staff writer Chad Livengood and the Associated Press contributed.