Pot legalization proposal kept off Michigan ballot

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Marijuana legalization appears highly unlikely to make the Michigan ballot this November after an activist-led group failed to win its initial legal challenge.

Michigan Court of Claims Judge Stephen Borrello dismissed Tuesday a lawsuit filed by MI Legalize, ruling the state is not legally bound to count petition signatures the group collected outside of a traditional 180-day window.

The group did not follow an established policy to prove the validity of older signatures, and the Board of State Canvassers “has no clear legal duty to place the initiative on the ballot,” Borrello ruled.

MI Legalize chairman Jeff Hank vowed an “expeditious” appeal, predicting the case will ultimately be decided by Michigan Supreme Court.

“It’s definitely not what we were looking for, and we’re disappointed, but we’re on to the higher level,” Hank said Wednesday morning.

MI Legalize submitted an estimated 354,000 signatures to the state on June 1, topping the 253,523 needed to make the ballot. But many of them were collected outside of 180 days and were presumed “stale and void” under state law.

The ballot committee sued Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, Bureau of Elections Director Chris Thomas and the Board of State Canvassers, arguing the state policy to “rehabilitate” older signatures was badly outdated and impossible to comply with.

The group also argued the 180-day time limit denied voters their free speech and political expression rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

MI Legalize “made compelling arguments,” but Borrello said he was bound to follow the precedent set by the Michigan Supreme Court in 1986, when it upheld the 180-day signature window for initiatives to amend the state Constitution.

“As our Supreme Court recognized, the purity of elections is an important state interest that is furthered by the rebuttable presumption that signatures more than 180 days old are stale and void,” Borrello wrote in his 14-page opinion.

Gov. Rick Snyder in June signed a new law strengthening the 180-day window requirement for petition drives to initiate legislation or amend the state Constitution, eliminating the option for petitioners to try to rehabilitate older signatures.

The 1986 Board of State Canvassers policy required petitioners to secure affidavits from local elections clerks across the state confirming that signers were still registered to vote in their respective counties.

MI Legalize asked the state to update by the policy by allowing registration verification through the state’s Qualified Voter File database, but the Board of Canvassers did not approve a Bureau of Elections recommendation.

Hank said the Court of Claims ruling did not adequately address problems with the 1986 policy or how new technology could be implemented.

“We’ve shown it’s not acceptable because you can’t utilize it,” Hank said. “Everything it was intended to prove – that signers were qualified electors and you don’t have duplicate signatures – we’re able to do now using the Qualified Voter File.”

The MI Legalize proposal seeks to legalize marijuana use by adults and allow taxable retail sales, with revenue going to roads, schools and local governments.

Michigan voters approved the state’s medical marijuana law in 2008.