Unlock Michigan proposal heads to state Legislature after year of clashes

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Delta Township — A Michigan board decided Tuesday morning to certify Unlock Michigan's petition signatures, paving the way for final votes in the state Legislature on a long-debated proposal to repeal the law that bolstered Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's COVID-19 response.

The decision by the Board of State Canvassers came after two rulings from the Michigan Supreme Court and means the Republican-controlled House and Senate can approve the repeal measure in the coming days without Whitmer, a Democrat, having any ability to block it.

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, Oct. 2, 2020. The group is seeking to revoke Governor Gretchen Whitmer's ability to govern by emergency decree.

While the policy in question has already been struck down by the state's highest court, the unilateral powers of the governor have been a topic of heavy debate in Michigan during the coronavirus pandemic. Whitmer has said she used her authority to save lives, and GOP lawmakers contended she overstepped legal bounds.

During a Tuesday morning meeting in Delta Township, the Board of State Canvassers voted 3-0 to certify that Unlock Michigan gathered enough signatures to advance. One board member, Democrat Jeannette Bradshaw, was absent.

"We’re looking forward to the next and final step on this long road: passage by the Michigan House and Senate of our initiative to repeal this law so abused by Gov.  Whitmer," said Fred Wszolek, spokesman for Unlock Michigan.

The vote came four days after the Michigan Supreme Court directed the Board of State Canvassers, a bipartisan board featuring two Democrats and two Republicans, to approve the petition signatures. A month earlier, the state's highest court initially ruled the board had to sign off on the campaign's signatures. But an opposition group called Keep Michigan Safe filed a motion for reconsideration.

The looming votes in the state Legislature would be the culmination of a 13-month push to repeal the 1945 law that underpinned Whitmer's initial handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act. The state Senate is planning to be in session Thursday. The state House is expected to meet next week.

The 1945 law 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 and requiring people to stay home, under the declaration.

The policy became a target among conservative activists who opposed Whitmer's COVID-19 restrictions and argued that it violated the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches.

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 law formally repealed in case a court later tries to revive the law.

After the Supreme Court ruling, the Whitmer administration used the state's public health code, which allows the state health director to issue orders, to take actions to respond to the pandemic.

In another development on Tuesday, the Board of State Canvassers approved summary language for new petition language from Unlock Michigan for a new proposal to curb the emergency powers of the state health department. Wszolek said the group will begin gathering signatures for that plan soon. The signature collection process will likely take months.

The initiative would change the code to limit epidemic orders to 28 days. After the deadline, public health officials would need to get an extension approval from the Legislature or local governing bodies. Currently, there is no time limit on the orders.

In a Tuesday statement, Keep Michigan Safe spokesman Mark Fisk urged lawmakers to block Unlock Michigan's repeal of the 1945 law.

"Unlock Michigan’s brazen partisan power grab will further reduce our state’s ability to save lives during public health emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic and handcuff future generations of leaders from acting decisively in times of crises," Fisk said.

Michigan Bureau of Elections staff previously estimated 460,358 signatures of the total 538,345 submitted by Unlock Michigan were valid. The group needed 340,047 signatures to obtain certification.

But on April 22, the Board of State Canvassers deadlocked on whether to approve the group's petition signatures. The two Democratic members wanted an investigation and new rules on petition collection amid claims of wrongdoing by individuals who gathered signatures for Unlock Michigan.

Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel had previously 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 a probe by the board itself into the signatures.

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

However, the Michigan Supreme Court has said the investigatory powers of the Board of State Canvassers are limited and the bipartisan panel had "a clear legal duty to certify the petition."

Matuzak voted to certify the petitions on Tuesday.


Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.