Benson wants attorney general's opinion on new GOP petition drive rules

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Former Wayne State University Law School Dean Jocelyn Benson speaks with reporters Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017, at a secretary of state campaign kick-off event at Grand Traverse Pie Company in downtown Lansing.

Delta Township — New Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said Wednesday she will seek a legal opinion on the constitutionality of a recent Republican law that will make it tougher to complete petition drives to initiate legislation or ballot proposals.

Benson will ask Attorney General Dana Nessel, a fellow Democrat who also took office Jan. 1, to weigh in on the controversial measure the GOP-led Legislature approved late last year during the so-called lame-duck session.

The secretary of state said she wants to do a top-to-bottom review of petition drive rules in Michigan to ensure citizens “have access to this important right” but told reporters she does not think her “personal view matters in this case.”

As the Bureau of Elections prepares to enforce any new election rules, Benson said she’ll seek an opinion on the constitutionality of the law from the attorney general, “who’s the sole authority in making that type of decision.”

The petition drive law limits the number of signatures that organizers can collect from voters in any since congressional district, capping the number at 15 percent of the total required to advance citizen-initiated legislation.

The Michigan Constitution guarantees the right to initiate legislation or propose constitutional amendments through petition drives but does not put any limits on what part of the state signatures can be collected from.

Former GOP Gov. Rick Snyder signed the proposal into law four days before leaving office, saying in a statement that it will "promote geographic diversity" similar to the signature-gathering requirements imposed on gubernatorial candidates filing for election. 

Critics saw the law as a response to petition drives organized or funded by liberal groups, including minimum wage and paid sick leave initiatives the GOP-led Legislature kept off the 2018 ballot by adopting them but amending them before they took effect.

Groups that backed the efforts are considering whether to launch petition drives again for 2020 ballot proposals, assuming that Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would veto any other GOP attempt to scale them back.

But organizers are also considering legal action over the new petition drive rules, said Mark Brewer, former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party who now works as an attorney and represents the One Fair Wage and MI Time to Care ballot committees.

“If we want to do another petition drive, (the new law) would have an impact,” Brewer said, arguing it “is unconstitutional in several ways.”

John Bursch, a former Michigan solicitor general, argued that congressional district caps on petition drives would not violate the state Constitution and urged legislators to adopt the proposal late last year as he advocated for the West Michigan Policy Forum business group.

The law, which includes new rules for circulators, “will prevent fraud, it will better inform voters and it will require widespread support for ballot initiatives,” Bursch told lawmakers in December.

Benson discussed her pending request for an attorney general’s opinion with reporters in Delta Township after announcing the state has joined the Electronic Registration Information Center, a multistate agreement designed to ensure and increase the accuracy of voter records.

Michigan is the 25th state to join the partnership, which Benson said will cost $25,000 initially and then no more than $20,000 per year. Participation gives Michigan access to “a sophisticated and secure data-matching tool to improve the accuracy and efficiency of state voter registration systems,” according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, which helped develop the program owned by partnership states.

Michigan could ultimately save money if it maintains more up-do-date voter records and avoids sending information to erroneous addresses, Benson argued. The state will contact voters directly to verify information before changing their voter registration status, she said.

The voter file update program will replace the Interstate Crosscheck system that Michigan had been a part of. Benson said the information center is a more accurate and secure way of sharing voter data between states, a majority of which are now participating.

 “It’s been found to be a reliable, cost-effective way of actually sharing this data and protecting the security and privacy of it,” she said.