Michigan petitioners stretch truth for signatures

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau
  • Michigan has no law against lying about the content of an initiative petition
  • There have been several documented instances of circulators stretching the truth this summer
  • Petition backers said they encourage accurate descriptions and try to weed out problem circulators
  • Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing, has proposed a crackdown on petition circulators who lie

Lansing — Summer is petition season in Michigan, where paid circulators are taking advantage of warm weather and public events to collect signatures for at least three statewide initiatives — and sometimes stretching the truth in their sales pitch to voters.

A circulator working a park concert last month in Lansing approached a Detroit News reporter and requested signatures for two separate petitions, including one she said was “for the teachers and construction workers to help protect their wages, benefits and pensions,” a claim she repeated twice.

The initiative actually seeks to repeal the state’s prevailing wage law, which guarantees union-level wages and benefits for workers on some government-funded construction projects. It has no direct connection to teacher compensation, but supporters contend it would reduce school construction costs. Critics argue it would drive down worker pay on construction projects.

Describing the second petition, the circulator said “recreational marijuana will be legal in about a year, and they don't want anyone under 21 to be able to indulge.”

She did not explain that the petition itself seeks to legalize recreational marijuana in Michigan. Under the potential 2018 ballot proposal, the drug would remain prohibited for anyone younger than 21.

While petition backers said they encourage accurate descriptions and try to weed out problem circulators, Michigan has no law against inaccuracies about the content of a petition. Critics say circulators paid by the signature have a perverse incentive to do whatever they can to convince voters to sign a petition.

“We’ve heard this happen over and over and over again,” said state Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing, who has proposed legislation seeking to crack down on petition circulators who lie.

His bill would make it a misdemeanor crime for a paid or volunteer circulator to “knowingly and willfully circulate, publish, or exhibit a false statement or misrepresentation concerning the contents, purport or effect” of a statewide petition. Violators could face up to 93 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $500.

“I believe that the petition process is a fundamental part of our democracy here in Michigan, but you’re stealing that from somebody when you lie to them, when people think they’re signing one thing and they’re actually signing something else,” Hertel said.

Similar anti-lying legislation was introduced in the House by Rep. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, but the proposals have not yet been taken up by Republican majorities in either chamber.

GOP Rep. Aaron Miller of Sturgis, who chairs the House Committee on Elections and Ethics, said he is worried the proposed law could be difficult to enforce. But Miller said he is open to holding a potential hearing on the legislation this fall if there is room on the committee schedule.

Although it’s not clear how widespread the problem is, Miller said he has heard isolated incidents of circulators allegedly misrepresenting various petition drives.

“It’s kind of on all sides, on all issues,” he said. “It’s wrong.”

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, is “willing to look at the issue, but his office has not been made aware of any instances of petition circulators lying,” said spokeswoman Amber McCann.

Self-policing petition drives

Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson’s office offers logical advice to voters: Read any petition “thoroughly” before signing it.

“The petition form is required to contain the description and the full text of the amendment of initiative,” said Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for Johnson. “How a circulator describes a petition isn’t regulated.”

There have been several documented instances this summer.

Hertel’s brother, Democratic state Rep. Kevin Hertel of St. Clair Shores, recently snapped a photo of a petition circulator for Lt. Gov. Brian Calley’s part-time Legislature proposal, whose committee is using a combination of paid and volunteer signature gatherers.

The circulator advertised the petition with a sign reading “no more free lifetime health care for Lansing politicians we pay for.”

As the younger Hertel noted, Michigan legislators haven’t received lifetime health benefits in several years. A 2011 law eliminated retiree health insurance for all state employees, including lawmakers. Calley’s petition would constitutionally ban the benefits already prohibited under statute.

The MIRS subscription news service last month reported a circulator describing the prevailing wage repeal petition as an attempt to raise Michigan’s minimum wage, which it would not do, and describing the recreational marijuana legalization proposal as an attempt to expand the availability of medical pot.

Organizers for the prevailing wage petition drive said they immediately fired the circulator in question. Both the Protecting Michigan Taxpayers committee and the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol are paying National Petition Management of Brighton to collect signatures.

“We try to police it the best we can, but you’re always going to have a few stragglers,” said Jeff Wiggins, president of the prevailing wage repeal petition committee and state director for the Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan, which is funding the effort.

Petitioners are provided with talking points designed to help them “accurately present what we’re trying to accomplish,” Wiggins said. “The first line of the petition is ‘repeal’ Michigan’s prevailing wage law. It’s right there on the petitions.”

Protecting Michigan Jobs, a labor-backed committee opposing the repeal effort, has alleged an overt attempt to confuse voters.

“Don’t be fooled,” the group says in two new billboards on Interstate 96, with one near Webberville and one near Portland. “Read every petition you are asked to sign.”

The prevailing wage petition may be the only chance voters have to weigh in directly on the issue.

Unlike other petitions in the field this summer, organizers are not expecting their proposal to go to the ballot. Instead, they anticipate the Republican-led Legislature will approve the initiative within a 40-day window allowed by the Michigan Constitution, effectively bypassing opposition from GOP Gov. Rick Snyder.

The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol has a “zero tolerance policy” about circulators who misrepresent the pot petition, said spokesman Josh Hovey, who added the group would not accept petitions from a circulator found lying.

“When we do find out, we’re very aggressive in making sure that does not continue,” Hovey said.

Some states more strict

Some states have moved to regulate circulators more heavily than Michigan, which primarily relies on self-policing.

Ohio law holds that no person shall “willfully misrepresent the contents” of any initiative or referendum petition, punishable by fines of between $100 and $500.

In Oregon, it is a felony to make “false statements” to anyone who signs a petition or requests information about it. Paid circulators must also register with the state and review training materials. Violating petition laws can land a person up to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to $125,000.

Petition drives to initiate law or amend the state constitution, originally envisioned as avenues for citizens to directly shape their government, have become big business in Michigan and across the country.

Most successful petition drives are managed by professional companies hired to collect valid signatures. Groups on pace to make Michigan’s 2018 ballot – or advance a measure to the Legislature – will likely spend around $1.5 million to get there, said Craig Mauger of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

State law gives Michigan petitioners a 180-day window to collect signatures. This year, it will take 252,523 valid signatures to advance initiated legislation or 315,654 signatures to amend the state constitution.

“The signature threshold is so high, you pretty much either have to have an amazing grassroots organization, which is really hard to set up and takes a lot of money to establish, or you have to pay for signatures,” Mauger said.

Some states have attempted to ban paid petitioners or payments per signature, but such laws in at least five states have been ruled unconstitutional, including a Colorado pay-per-signature statute struck down on First Amendment grounds.

“There’s an incentive to get the signatures, so there’s an incentive to lie,” Hertel said. “We’ve got to balance that out in some way, and I think that by making it a crime, they’d be less likely to do that.”