Divided appeals court strikes down parts of lame-duck petition drive law

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Court of Appeals has struck down elements of a 2018 Michigan law that created obstacles for groups seeking to gather petitions to put ballot proposals in front of Michigan voters.

In a 2-1 ruling released Monday, the court said a requirement limiting campaigns to getting no more than 15% of their signatures from one of Michigan's 14 congressional districts "unduly burdens the initiative and petition process."

A petitioner gathers signatures in Campus Martius in downtown Detroit.

"Setting a 15% geographic limitation serves to take power out of the hands of the people and requires, in essence, a pre-vote of agreement in a certain number of congressional districts as to whether or not a matter should be put to a general vote," wrote Judge Deborah A. Servitto, who was appointed by Democratic former Gov. Jennifer Granholm. 

Judge Michael Gadola, appointed by former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, signed on to the opinion.

The Legislature enacted the law in question during the 2018 lame-duck session after Michigan voters approved ballot proposals to legalize recreational marijuana, overhaul the redistricting process and create voting rights measures in November 2018.

In addition to striking the 15% requirement, the Court of Appeals also ruled against a requirement that circulators identify themselves as paid circulators through a "check box" on their petitions and that paid circulators file an affidavit with the state.

The court said the affidavit requirement "singles out only paid circulators" and burdens "political speech by imposing a requirement that circulators must file an affidavit before obtaining signatures."

Judge Mark T. Boonstra, a Snyder appointee, dissented. While Boonstra agreed with the majority on the unconstitutionality of the geographic and the affidavit requirements, he disagreed on the "check box" rule.

Boonstra said the "check box" requirement would promote "full information and transparency with prospective voters and petition signers."

Among the plaintiffs who brought the case were the League of Women Voters of Michigan. Attorney Mark Brewer, the former Michigan Democratic Party chairman who represented the plaintiffs, called the decision "a complete victory for Michigan voters."

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, had previously declared the petition drive law unconstitutional.

Supporters of the law argued that it would bring new transparency to petition drives.

“This will bring much needed transparency and accountability into our petition gathering process,” Rep. Jim Lower, R-Cedar Lake, said in 2018. “It also ensures statewide input on these types of proposals.”