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Despite tossed signatures, Unlock Michigan says it has support to limit Whitmer's authority

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Unlock Michigan, the group that wants to limit Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic, says it's collected enough petition signatures to put the proposal before the GOP-controlled Legislature.

But an opposing group is questioning the validity of those signatures, arguing some petition gatherers had been trained with improper tactics to gain support.

The signatures also could set off a separate fight over the time it will take the Michigan Bureau of Elections to verify them. Unlock Michigan says it should take 60 days. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office says it will take about 105 days, potentially pushing the process into next year when control of the state House could change hands.

Unlock Michigan said Wednesday it's gathered more than 500,000 signatures to repeal a 1945 law that allows a Michigan governor to declare an emergency and keep the declaration in place without input from state lawmakers. The emergency declaration is important because it gives Whitmer the ability to take unilateral actions to combat the pandemic, such as closing businesses or suspending state laws.

A petition gatherer for Unlock Michigan sets up a table outside the Michigan Capitol on Aug. 14, 2020.

If 340,047 of the collected signatures are deemed valid by the Michigan Bureau of Elections, the repeal proposal could go before the Legislature for approval without Whitmer having a chance to veto it.

Unlock Michigan spokesman Fred Wszolek said he's so sure the group has enough valid signatures that the campaign stopped collecting with about 100 days remaining before the 180-day deadline under state law.

"We would just keeping going if we had any doubt at all," Wszolek said in an interview.

Mark Fisk, spokesman for Keep Michigan Safe, a committee that's opposing Unlock Michigan, called for a "complete review of each and every signature," arguing Wednesday that some of Unlock Michigan's petition gatherers had been trained on how to lie to people about the proposal.

Fisk also requested "a full investigation by state officials to protect the integrity of the petition process and expose the true magnitude of illegal and improper conduct."

Keep Michigan Safe released a video recording this week of Erik Tisinger, who worked through the company In The Field, training people on Sept. 4 to gather signatures for the Unlock Michigan campaign.

In the secretly recorded video, Tisinger of California advised the prospective gatherers, who would be paid $3.50 per signature, to tell people their signatures would simply help put the issue "on the ballot," which isn't necessarily true because lawmakers also could approve it. He said they can try to collect signatures in privately owned parking lots and act like they don't know it's against the law if approached by police, according to the video.

At another point, one of the trainees asked if he could leave a petition sheet on the counter of a friend's store, which goes against state policy because the signing is supposed to happen in the circulator's presence.

"Technically, no. It. None of you are recording anything right now are you?" Tisinger responded, according to the video.

Someone in the room responded, "No."

Tisinger, who couldn't be reached for comment, then said, "Don't ever tell me about it again," according to the video footage.

Wszolek said Unlock Michigan is not going to use signatures turned in by In The Field since the Sept. 4 training, which he estimated as a few thousand.

The campaign paid petition gathers to help, but Wszolek said volunteers were responsible for more than half of the signatures. 

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel's office says it's also received complaints about Unlock Michigan petition gatherers lying to people about the proposal while seeking support.

Some residents reported being told the petition would "give the governor emergency powers” but it sought to repeal those powers, Nessel's spokesman, Ryan Jarvi, said last month.

Timing remains crucial to Unlock Michigan's effort. On Nov. 3, 41 days from Wednesday, the state House will be up for election, and Democrats could win back control of the chamber if it wins control of four GOP seats. A Democrat-controlled House could decide to send the proposal to the ballot in 2022 — two years from now — instead of approving it.

Whitmer, a Democrat, has said any attempt to strip away her powers during the crisis "is irresponsible, dangerous and foolish."

Robert Gordon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said Wednesday the state is facing "increasing risk" related to the virus this fall as temperatures drop and schools reopen. 

As of Wednesday, Michigan had confirmed 118,615 cases of COVID-19 and a death toll of 6,692.

There are 100 days remaining before the start of the new year, and it's unclear how long it will take for Benson's office to review the signatures once Unlock Michigan submits them, which it said will be soon. The estimated average turnaround time is about 105 days, said Tracy Wimmer, a spokeswoman for Benson, who's a Democrat.

The state reviews a sample of hundreds to thousands of signatures submitted by campaigns to determine if petitions are authentic, meet legal standards and are registered voters.

"It takes approximately 60 days to complete the random sampling and challenge process described above," said Jonathan Brater, Michigan's elections director, in a signed affidavit that Unlock Michigan is now citing.

But Wimmer said Wednesday that Brater was referring to "a specific scenario in which petition review would take approximately 60 days if the petition was submitted in summer months with more staff resources available for petition review necessary to meet a constitutional deadline."

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at a press conference to update the public on the spread of COVID-19 on Monday, March 30, 2020.

"Right now, the Bureau of Elections is devoting all staff and resources to carrying out a successful presidential election amidst an unprecedented global pandemic," Wimmer added.

But Unlock Michigan argued there's enough time for its proposal to be placed before the Legislature before the end of the year and a new session begins.

"We have submitted vastly more signatures than required to qualify our initiative, and the 60-day process of the Bureau of Elections will allow ample time for the Legislature to enact this law this year," Unlock Michigan Co-chair Garret Soldano said in a statement. “We the People did our job. The Bureau of Elections needs to do their job."

Asked if the campaign would sue if the verification process led to delays, Wszolek didn't rule it out.

"If they don’t treat this with the urgency that it deserves … we’ll ask for judicial relief," he said.

As of July 20, Keep Michigan Safe hadn't reported any financial contributors. As of Aug. 3, Unlock Michigan reported $938,916 in contributions with $695,200 coming from Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, a nonprofit group with ties to Senate Republicans that doesn't have to disclose its donors.

The committee's campaign plays out as a legal fight continues over Whitmer's use of two state laws to declare emergencies during the pandemic. The Michigan Supreme Court could rule on the matter in the coming days.

If the 1945 Emergency Powers of Governor Act were repealed, the 1976 Emergency Management Act would remain. It requires the Legislature to weigh in on whether a declaration should continue after 28 days.

Michigan has been under various emergency declarations because of COVID-19 since March 10, 197 days ago.

cmauger@detroitnews.com