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Unlock Michigan submits petitions to limit Whitmer's powers amid investigation

Lansing — Unlock Michigan, the campaign to limit Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic, says it submitted 539,000 petition signatures to the state Friday, with a fight over their validity expected to ensue.

Later in the day, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that Whitmer did not possess the authority to exercise emergency powers under the 1945 Emergency Powers of the Governor Act because the law violates the Michigan Constitution, a decision that could make the petition drive moot.

The campaign's submission came the same day President Donald Trump announced he had tested positive for the virus and four days after Attorney General Dana Nessel launched a criminal investigation into the effort's signature-gathering practices. 

Boxes filled with a reported 539,384 petition signatures are delivered by Unlock Michigan to the Michigan Department of State Bureau of Elections in Lansing Friday, October 2, 2020. The group is seeking to revoke Governor Gretchen Whitmer's ability to govern by emergency decree.

Unlock Michigan's supporters collected signatures across the state over the last three months, hoping to advance the proposal to repeal the 1945 law that allowed Whitmer, a Democrat, to declare a state of emergency and keep the declaration in place without input from lawmakers.

The campaign plans for its proposal to go before the Republican-controlled Legislature by the end of the current session. The governor would have no chance to veto it. The emergency declarations have allowed her to take unilateral actions to combat COVID-19, like closing businesses and requiring masks be worn.

"These petitions are not an item in a state government ‘suggestion box," said Ron Armstrong, co-chairman of Unlock Michigan. "They are the legitimate demand, pursuant to our state Constitution, for a specific purpose: the repeal of the 1945 law that allows a governor to rule by decree.

"Our petition must be processed immediately for a prompt vote of this Legislature this year.”

About 100 people gathered outside the Secretary of State's office in downtown Lansing to celebrate the submission Friday morning. They chanted, "We the people," as boxes of signed petitions were carried into the building.

Under state policy, the campaign needed to gather 340,047 valid signatures to advance its proposal to the Legislature. The submission begins the process of state officials determining whether that occurred.

Unlock Michigan says that process should take 60 days, while Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office has said it will take about 105 days, potentially pushing a decision into next year when control of the state House could flip after the Nov. 3 election. Benson, like Whitmer, is a Democrat.

Unlock Michigan Co-Chairs Garrett Soldano, Ron Armstrong and Meshawn Maddock, left to right, speak to supporters in Lansing Friday morning. Boxes filled with a reported 539,384 petition signatures were delivered by Unlock Michigan to the Michigan Department of State Bureau of Elections in Lansing Friday, October 2, 2020. The group is seeking to revoke Governor Gretchen Whitmer's ability to govern by emergency decree.

Fred Wszolek, spokesman for Unlock Michigan, said a lawsuit would be filed "soon" if the state delays reviewing the signatures.

"No delays," he said, standing in front of the Secretary of State's office in downtown Lansing. "Let's get these signatures processed so the Legislature can dispense with this law now."

As Unlock Michigan's supporters — most of whom did not wear masks — cheered and chanted on Friday, a group of three medical professionals stood nearby in scrubs and masks voicing opposition to the proposal.

Dr. Farhan Bhatti of Lansing said he wants to see life return to normal, like Unlock Michigan's supporters do. But, he said, it's important to recognize that Whitmer's measures to combat COVID-19 are exactly what is "required to get us to that goal."

Nessel launched her investigation after allegations from the opposition group Keep Michigan Safe that Unlock Michigan used a trainer who advised petition circulators on techniques that were illegal.

Keep Michigan Safe has called for a complete review of every signature. The group also released a video recording 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 the plan is for lawmakers to approve it.

Liz Wagner of Stevensville holds a sign as boxes filled with a reported 539,384 petition signatures are delivered by Unlock Michigan to the Michigan Department of State Bureau of Elections in Lansing Friday, October 2, 2020. The group is seeking to revoke Governor Gretchen Whitmer's ability to govern by emergency decree.

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.

Unlock Michigan representatives have said they are not going to use signatures turned in by In The Field since the Sept. 4 training.

Wszolek called the investigation "nonsense" on Friday and said there was an effort by "paid Democratic campaign professionals to commit crimes on camera to make us look bad."

Timing remains crucial to Unlock Michigan's effort. On Nov. 3, Democrats could win back control of the chamber if they flip four GOP-held seats. A Democratic-controlled House would likely decide to send the proposal to the ballot in 2022 — two years from now — instead of approving it.

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

The Republican-led Legislature has sought the repeal of the 1945 emergency power law. A separate law allows the governor to declare an emergency and keep it in place for 28 days before lawmakers get the chance to approve an extension.

Sally Henne of Hemlock, one of the supporters of Unlock Michigan who helped gather petition signatures, said she felt "powerless" amid the governor's unilateral actions and the campaign allowed her to do something about it.

cmauger@detroitnews.com