Unlock Michigan's proposal stalls as state board deadlocks on petitions

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News
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Lansing — Unlock Michigan's proposal to repeal a 1945 law that bolstered Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic hit an obstacle Thursday as a state board deadlocked on whether to approve the group's petition signatures.

The four-member Board of State Canvassers voted 2-2, failing to certify the signatures as the two Democratic members questioned the collection strategies used by Unlock Michigan.

The tied vote will set up a legal battle over whether the board should have signed off and sent the proposal directly to the GOP-controlled Legislature, which is expected to approve it into law. Fred Wszolek, spokesman for Unlock Michigan, vowed to take the matter to court within days.

Unlock Michigan co-chairs, from left, Garrett Soldano, Ron Armstrong and Meshawn Maddock speak to supporters in Lansing in October 2020.

"The Board of State Canvassers failed to do its legal duty today to certify the Unlock Michigan petition," Wszolek said. "Predictable partisanship from two members — in clear violation of the law and every court precedent — disenfranchises more than 540,000 voters who want their voice heard.

"There is no doubt that Unlock MI submitted sufficient signatures to require certification. There is no doubt what the board's clear legal duty was. Do we need to seek sanctions and court costs against individual canvassers to get them to start doing their legal duty?"

A day earlier, Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel announced she wouldn't bring any charges after investigating allegations of wrongdoing involving Unlock Michigan. But Democrat Julie Matuzak, one of the four canvassers, called for an investigation by the board itself into the signatures and for new rules on petitions.

"We are the gatekeepers of election integrity," Matuzak said. "And election integrity includes petitions. I think we let down voters if we don't exercise the power that we have."

The board's GOP members blocked Matuzak's motions for an investigation and new rules on petitions. Republican Norm Shinkle said Matuzak's proposals were efforts to delay and shut down "the system here indefinitely."

The board's job is to certify petitions, Shinkle said, adding that the Michigan Bureau of Elections had reviewed the petitions and recommended certification. Bureau staff estimated about 460,358 signatures of the total 538,345 submitted were valid. Unlock Michigan needed 340,047 signatures to obtain certification.

"It's not going to make a difference in the outcome that staff is recommending," Shinkle said of a potential investigation.

Matuzak and fellow Democrat Jeannette Bradshaw acknowledged that the board hadn't investigated past petitions. Republican Tony Daunt said the Democrats wanted to open a "Pandora's box" for "eternal delay tactics."

"The staff report has been very clear," Daunt said. "It shows ample signatures have met the qualifications."

Unlock Michigan's proposal would repeal the 1945 Emergency Powers of the Governor Act, which allowed a governor to declare a state of emergency and keep it in place without input from the Legislature. The governor could take unilateral actions, like suspending state laws, under the declaration.

The Michigan Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional on Oct. 2, the same day Unlock Michigan submitted its petition signatures to the Bureau of Elections. Despite the court decision, supporters of Unlock Michigan, which has ties to state Senate Republicans, want the the law formally repealed in case a court later revives the law.

However, there's been a months-long fight over the petition collection processes used by the group. An opposition committee called Keep Michigan Safe has alleged that the petition gatherers had been coached "to blatantly lie to convince people to sign petitions" and had used other improper tactics.

Keep Michigan Safe released a video in September 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.

The opposition trackers who filmed Tisinger were employees of Farough & Associates, a Democratic consulting firm that had been hired by Keep Michigan Safe, Nessel said Wednesday.

The attorney general said her office examined evidence and interviews for potential charges against nine people, including opposition trackers who secretly filmed the circulators and trainers. But Nessel said, "There simply is a lack of sufficient admissible evidence to bring criminal charges against anyone involved."

“Our investigation found clear evidence of misrepresentation by the petition circulators and questionable training by persons who recruited and were supposed to supervise paid circulators," the attorney general said. "However, those incidents were not in violation of any criminal statute.”

Nessel added that one of the tracker's conduct "created a significant hurdle to pursuing criminal charges in the Unlock Michigan case."

Earlier this month, Keep Michigan Safe filed a lawsuit suit in the Michigan Court of Claims, asking the court to bar the Board of State Canvassers from considering the Unlock Michigan petition.

Keep Michigan Safe spokesman Mark Fisk touted the Thursday decision by the board.

"Unlock Michigan made a mockery of the petition gathering effort and a mockery of our election process with their illegal and unscrupulous tactics, and we applaud Board Members Matuzak and Bradshaw for safeguarding our democracy and standing up for the integrity of our election process," Fisk said.

But Ted Goodman, spokesman for the Michigan Republican Party, said vote amounted to two Democrats rejecting "the voice of over one half million Michiganders in order to protect Gretchen Whitmer."

cmauger@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.

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