Michigan pot proposal stymied by signature stalemate

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — An increasingly long-shot effort to put a marijuana legalization measure on Michigan’s 2016 ballot suffered another setback Thursday, when the Board of State Canvassers deadlocked on a policy revision for proving the validity of old signatures.

The two Republicans and two Democrats on the board were at odds over state Bureau of Elections recommendations that would have updated and eased the state policy for “rebutting” and rehabilitating signatures collected outside a traditional 180-day collection window. The proposed updates stalled in a series of 2-2 votes.

The stalemate is “an outrage,” said Jeff Hank, an attorney and executive director of MI Legalize, who added the ballot committee may ultimately pursue legal action in hopes of forcing the issue onto the ballot.

“We’ll vigorously defend our rights and the rights of every Michigan voter to have ballot access,” he said. “That’s what this is about now; it’s about our rights as Michigan citizens to petition.”

MI Legalize faces a June 1 deadline to turn in at least 252,000 valid signatures. The group began its petition drive nearly a year ago, and Hank said circulators have collected an estimated 200,000 signatures that could be disqualified under current policy.

At issue is a state law that usually requires committees to collect signatures within a 180-day period, along with a little-known policy allowing groups to use otherwise “stale and void” signatures if they can prove signers were registered to vote during the 180-day window.

Current policy requires affidavits from individual election clerks, but Hank requested an update to reflect new technology. The Bureau of Elections recommended a revised policy that would use the Qualified Voter File database to prove registration status.

Republican board appointee Norm Shinkle argued against any kind of policy update.

“We’re here today because there are people in the field who have failed to gather their signatures in the allotted time that has been with us for 30 years,” he said. “We should not be changing the rules in the middle of the game.”

Shinkle also noted that the Republican-led Legislature is considering a bill that would eliminate the ability to rehabilitate old signatures. The Senate has approved the measure, which is awaiting action in the House.

“They’re going to do something with it, and we should wait to see what the House is going to do,” he said.

Hank accused some legislators and Board of Canvassers members of seeking to limit the “core speech” rights of petitioners by standing in the way of the recommended policy update, which is also supported by an anti-hydraulic fracturing group seeking to make the ballot with a proposal to ban extracting oil and natural gas through “fracking.”

After the hearing, he reiterated that MI Legalize will consider legal action, arguing the 180-day window itself violates the state Constitution.

“That’s a shame, because this could all be avoided,” Hank said. “Norm Shinkle wants to cost taxpayers money. He doesn’t want to protect our rights to vote. He doesn’t want to protect our right to petition. There’s a problem.”

Bureau of Elections Director Chris Thomas presented canvassers with two possible policy updates: one that would have clarified the current process for challenging old signatures and another that would have revised the process to make it easier.

The current policy, which the board adopted in 1986, involves “quite a laborious process,” Thomas said.

Obtaining voter registration affidavits from individual election clerks “never made much sense,” he said. “If you’re going to have them sign that, you might as well have (voters) sign the petition again.”

Hank said clerks have refused to verify old signatures, as prescribed under the current policy, and Thomas said a handful of clerks have told him the same.

“You can’t create a policy that’s just impossible,” said Hank. “It’s like asking us to find a unicorn.”

Democratic appointee Julie Matuzak pushed for a vote on the policy recommendations, arguing the board should not assume the Legislature is going to address a policy that has not been changed since 1986.

“I do think it’s incumbent upon us to understand that technology changes,” she said, referencing the ability to verify voter registration via the Qualified Voter File. “…And I believe we should be as liberal as possible including signatures on petitions.”

But Shinkle argued against making changes to a policy that has stood for 30 years and questioned why Hank did not pursue a policy change closer to 1998, when the Qualified Voter File was first implemented.

“He’s here because he screwed up his petition drive,” Shinkle said the meeting. “He failed.”