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State sampling more signatures to decide fate of anti-abortion petition

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The Michigan Bureau of Elections will pull a new, larger sample of signatures to determine whether a petition seeking to ban dilation and evacuation abortions passes muster. 

The Board of State Canvassers voted unanimously Thursday to pull 1,600 additional signatures after the Bureau of Elections said last week the Michigan Values Life ballot committee did not have enough valid signatures in an initial 500-signature sample.

The bureau also will re-examine petition sheets that had been eliminated from the group for defects.

Last week, the bureau recommended the board deny the petition, arguing the group likely fell short of the 340,047 required signatures because roughly 54 of the 500-signature sample were deemed invalid because of duplication, voter registration status or other mistakes. 

Chairman of the Board of State Canvassers Norm Shinkle is a consultant for the Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative group that opposes the idea of a part-time Legislature.

But Michigan Values Life, a committee formed by Right to Life of Michigan, argued Thursday that the sample analyzed was not a valid representation of the "universe" of signatures gathered because several petition sheets were removed as invalid prior to the sample being taken. 

The sheets, which included several thousand signatures, were removed because of defects in them such as tears, the use of white out or permanent marker that bled through language on the back of the document. 

Eric Doster, a lawyer for Michigan Values Life, argued some of those sheets should not have been removed and could have added 1,000 to 1,500 additional signatures to the pool from which the sample was pulled. 

If there is a doubt about the process of that removal, Doster said, it "must be resolved in favor of the First Amendment" rights of the petitioners. 

Board member Norm Shinkle, a Republican, agreed, noting some of the sheets pulled from the pile for defects had minor problems such as a corner tear "the size of a pencil eraser" or a thin tear in the middle of the sheet where it was folded in the mail. He also argued against disqualifying sheets for the use of white-out.

None of those issues, Shinkle argued, represented a "mandatory element" that would force the exclusion of an entire sheet of signatures.

"We threw out 7,000 signatures and some of them should be thrown out, but there is a whole bunch of them that I do think should have been part of the universe," he said. 

Typically, the bureau only disqualifies sheets prior to sampling if the defect obscures a material element on the petition, such as wording, signatures or dates, said Melissa Malerman, director for the Disclosure, Filings and Compliance Division at the Bureau of Elections.

"The face review process actually is designed and assists the petition sponsor in that sheets that are fatally defective are excluded from the universe" and removed as a potentially invalid signature in the sampling phase, Malerman said. 

But she said some of the sheets referred to by Shinkle were "admittedly close calls."

Board member Julie Matuzak, a Democrat, said she would support Shinkle's motion to pull a second sample, but "reluctantly."

"I do it reluctantly because we do have rules, and we do have a set of procedures we follow," Matuzak said. 

The Committee to Protect Access to Care, formed by Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, urged the board to reject certification of the petition, arguing there were "careless errors" and that it was a "very poor petition drive."

"They ask you to ignore their flawed petition drive and change the rules under which petitions drives have operated for decades," said Mark Brewer, a lawyer for the group.

The challenge earlier this month from the Committee to Protect Access to Care marked the first time anyone in Michigan has challenged a petition initiative led by Right to Life, which has successfully gathered requisite signatures in four other petition drives in 1987, 1990, 2004 and 2013.

If Michigan Values Life obtains certification for the petition, the group plans to ask the GOP-led Legislature to enact the legislation, avoiding the November ballot box and a promised veto from Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and becoming law. 

Right to Life of Michigan President Barb Listing said Thursday the group looked forward to continuing the petition drive process. 

"We know Planned Parenthood will do everything possible to challenge the petition drive again and disenfranchise the people who signed it, and we will once again defend the voice of the people who signed these petitions," Listing said in a statement. 

The Coalition to Protect Access to Care criticized the board's decision, arguing it violated "longstanding rules and procedures."

"There is no justification for the special treatment Right to Life’s flawed petition received," the coalition said in a statement. "The board’s action not only violated the state Constitution and election laws but will create chaos for all future petition drives." 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com