State House votes to bolster petition requirements
Lansing — Michigan’s Republican-led House on Thursday voted to strengthen signature collection requirements for petition drives, a move opposed by marijuana legalization and “anti-fracking” groups hoping to place initiatives on the 2016 ballot.
The legislation, now working its way to the desk of Gov. Rick Snyder, would eliminate a ballot committee’s ability to “rehabilitate” signatures collected outside of a 180-day window.
Older signatures are considered “stale and void” under current law, but petitioners can challenge that presumption by proving residents were registered to vote at the time they signed the petition and during the official window.
The process is difficult and has never been successfully completed, but the state Bureau of Elections recently proposed a policy update that would allow petitioners to verify registration status using the Qualified Voter File computer database, a considerably easier path.
House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, spoke in favor of the legislation, which would thwart efforts to update the policy for rehabilitating old signatures.
“This rebuttable presumption avenue has not been used in the past,” he said. “What we are doing today is to provide some very straight-forward bright-line guidance as to what the rules and process are in Michigan.”
The House approved the bill in a 57-52 vote, mostly along party lines. The Senate approved the measure 26-10 in March.
The proposal to simplify signature rehabilitation was spurred by a request from attorney Jeff Hank, executive director of MI Legalize, which launched a marijuana legalization petition drive last summer and plans to turn in signatures by the end of the month. He argued the existing policy was outdated and unconstitutional.
The policy update also supported by a committee seeking to ban oil and gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing, but it was opposed by high-powered elections attorney John Pirich and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.
The new legislation, if signed by Snyder, would effectively end the debate and could stymie both petition drives, which may not meet requirements to qualify for the ballot if their older signatures are rejected.
The GOP majority on Wednesday quickly rejected an amendment proposed by Elections Committee Chairwoman Lisa Lyons, R-Alto, that would have delayed the effective date of the bill to January of 2017. The amendment had won unanimous support in committee.
Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, urged colleagues to oppose the bill. He said it would “punctuate the powers of special interests” capable of bankrolling expensive petition drives and questioned why “small government conservatives” would support the measure.
“This isn’t about fracking, and it’s not about ending cannabis prohibition,” he said. “It’s about our Constitution. It’s about the rights our citizens have to exercise power in the political process in a democracy. I beg you do not diminish the power of the people because you’re wrapped up in the current politics. What about issues five years from now?”
Former Attorney General Frank Kelley, in a formal opinion issued in 1974, held that the Michigan Constitution allows petitioners a full four years to collect signatures.
But the Michigan Supreme Court in 1986 upheld the state law that created the 180-day window and rebuttable presumption that older signatures are stale and void.
The Board of State Canvassers last week deadlocked on a vote to update the signature rehabilitation process, effectively stalling the proposal in anticipation of legislative action.
Hank has threatened to sue the state over the matter.