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Michigan board of canvassers rejects Fair and Equal petition signatures

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Delta Township — A Michigan board decided Monday that the campaign to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity had fallen short of the required petition signatures to advance to the state Legislature.

The Board of State Canvassers, which features two Democrats and two Republicans, voted 4-0 to reject the certification of Fair and Equal Michigan's signatures. Julie Matuzak, a Democratic board member, said she liked the content of the proposal but there weren't "enough good signatures."

"I can’t make this decision based on the content," Matuzak said. "I have to make it based on this process.”

Trevor Thomas, a board member of the Fair and Equal Michigan campaign, talks to reporters in downtown Lansing on Oct. 13, 2020, the day the effort turned in its petition signatures.

Steve Liedel, legal counsel for Fair and Equal Michigan, vowed to challenge the decision in the Court of Appeals. The group has contended that the Michigan Bureau of Elections made mistakes in analyzing its signatures and had gone too far in nixing some of them, including thousands of signatures collected electronically.

"Fair and Equal Michigan provided numerous examples to the board detailing how a significant number of our signatures were improperly thrown out," said Josh Hovey, spokesman for Fair and Equal Michigan. "The Board of Canvassers never addressed the issues we raised with the way the Bureau of Election staff handled our petitions, and we are confident that if all our valid signatures were counted then we would easily meet the threshold to move forward."

Mark Brewer, an attorney and former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party who is advocating on behalf of Fair and Equal, said the board was using practices that weren't supported by state law, like a policy to reject signatures in the sample for which there are duplicates outside of the sample.

"I’ve practiced before this board for nearly 30 years," Brewer said. "I have never seen the harsh treatment given to handwriting in the analysis of this sample."

But Jonathan Brater, Michigan's elections director, said the state's experienced staff examined the signatures and treated the petitions like they have other campaigns' submissions in the past.

"I have no idea what the basis is for the statement that signatures were treated more harshly,” Brater said.

Likewise, Norm Shinkle, a Republican member of the Board of State Canvassers, said the staff's work had been upheld by the courts "over and over and over." The Bureau of Elections falls under the leadership of Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat.

A coalition of business executives, political activists and nonprofit leaders launched the Fair and Equal Michigan campaign in January 2020. The idea was to put a proposal to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity before the GOP-controlled Legislature.

Lawmakers have long debated the reform in Michigan, with Republicans previously calling for protections for religious beliefs to be included in any such measure. If the Legislature refused to sign off on the Fair and Equal Michigan initiative, it would go before voters in 2022. However, to make that possible, Fair and Equal Michigan needed to collect 340,047 valid petition signatures to advance its initiative to lawmakers.

The group submitted 468,830 signatures. State officials declined to count more than 18,000 electronic signatures. Brater said the state doesn't have a process for accepting electronic signatures.

The Michigan Bureau of Elections also examined a sample of 502 signatures, finding Fair and Equal Michigan was well short of the 398 valid signatures in the sample needed to spur certification. More than 90 signatures were rejected because the signer was not registered to vote or the jurisdiction written by the signer didn't align with the jurisdiction where the voter was registered.

Initially, state election workers found the campaign collected 337 valid signatures in the sample. Last week, workers released a new tally, detailing only 297 valid signatures in the sample after duplicate signatures were eliminated.

Liedel said Fair and Equal Michigan plans to ask the courts to direct the Bureau of Elections to include the electronic signatures in the court and to apply what he described as "statutory standards" to the petitions.