Gay rights petition campaign plans to gather signatures electronically

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The campaign that wants to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Michigan says it will begin collecting petition signatures electronically — a move that could test state law during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fair and Equal Michigan, which launched in January, needs to gather 340,047 valid signatures by May 27 to put its proposal before the Legislature and potentially before voters in November.

These types of campaigns usually gather their signatures in person by organizing petition gatherers to attend public events. However, with restrictions in place on people leaving their homes, that strategy is impossible.

This is what petitions from the new group Fair and Equal Michigan will look like. The group hopes to expand the state's ban on discrimination to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

"This transition to electronic signature collection will ensure Michigan voters can continue to participate in the democratic process and exercise their reserved constitutional right to initiate legislation while doing their part to stop the spread of coronavirus," said Trevor Thomas, co-chairman of the Fair and Equal Michigan campaign.

But in a statement Monday, Department of State spokesman Jake Rollow said the department hasn't determined yet if it can accept signatures collected electronically.

"We have not yet conducted a full legal analysis," Rollow added.

In a Monday press release, Fair and Equal Michigan argued that electronic signatures are permitted under state law and a recent executive order by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The measures "provide that a signature will not be denied legal effect or enforceability solely because it is in electronic form and if a law requires a signature, an electronic signature satisfies the law," the campaign added in a statement. 

The executive order in question temporarily permits the use of an electronic signature for a transaction whenever a signature is required under Michigan law unless the law specifically mandates a physical signature, according to the governor's office

Michigan residents have a "constitutional right" to initiate laws through petition collecting, said Steve Liedel, a lawyer advising the Fair and Equal Michigan campaign,. The state's efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19 have restricted the "exercise of that right," he said.

"There has to be some mechanism to exercise a fundamental right," said Liedel, who acknowledged that he wasn't aware of another campaign previously collecting signatures electronically.

Two other ballot proposal campaigns have already suspended their efforts because of the obstacles presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fair and Equal Michigan is collecting signatures through its website. The process of signing electronically will take approximately three minutes and will require users to enter a valid Michigan driver’s license or state identification card number, the campaign says.

If the campaign gathers enough valid signatures, its proposal would first go before the state Legislature. If legislative leaders decline to vote on it or approve it, the initiative would go before voters.