Complaint: Mich. helped anti-gerrymandering effort

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Lansing – The Michigan Bureau of Elections effectively contributed to an anti-gerrymandering effort when it spent six weeks helping a ballot committee perfect its petition, according to a new complaint.

Republican attorney Bob LaBrant filed the complaint Thursday, alleging the bureau provided the Voters Not Politicians committee with what amounted to free legal service by a public body in violation of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act.

“The Bureau of Elections has engaged in mission creep,” LaBrant told The Detroit News.

The bureau typically probes alleged campaign finance violations. But because it is the subject of the new complaint, state law requires Secretary of State Ruth Johnson to refer LaBrant’s complaint to Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office for review.

She’ll do so, said spokesman Fred Woodhams.

At issue is a petition Voters Not Politicians submitted for approval on June 28, an optional step many groups take to avoid future legal challenges. The Board of State Canvassers unanimously approved the petition for circulation on Aug. 17 following multiple revisions recommended by the elections bureau.

The bureau is empowered to consult with sponsors on the form of a petition to ensure it meets technical formatting requirements, including headers, warnings and entry space for signers — not the language itself. The bureau also requires sponsors to list any provisions of the Michigan Constitution the petition would “alter or abrogate.”

LaBrant alleges the bureau worked with the group to “craft and edit language” of the petition. Its consultation should not have included consideration of constitutional provisions the petition would alter or abrogate, he argued.

Woodhams said the Secretary of State’s Office hasn’t fully reviewed the complaint yet, “so we’ll wait to respond to the allegations.”

Elections Director Sally Williams has said she and her staff “carefully and methodically” reviewed six separate drafts of the Voters Not Politicians petition, which she called the “most complex” proposal for a constitutional amendment in recent memory.

LaBrant is not alleging any wrongdoing by Voters Not Politicians, but committee President Katie Fahey called his complaint “one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard.”

“We as citizens need to have some kind of guidance to make sure we don’t (waste) the effort of thousands of people and thousands of dollars for petition printing and mailing,” she said.

LaBrant is a critic of the petition, which seeks to create an independent redistricting commission to govern creation of new political boundaries every 10 years.

State campaign finance law prohibits any public body from making a contribution or expenditure to benefit a candidate or ballot committee. The complaint alleges the bureau’s extensive consultation with the ballot committee amounted to an in-kind contribution.

“The bureau’s conduct went far beyond formatting issues,” LaBrant wrote in his complaint.