Michigan group sues over state canvassers' ruling on union labels

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

A Michigan group filed suit Monday against a state board over its decision to disapprove the format of a ballot initiative petition due to an issue with the union logo printed on it: The typeface was too small.

It might seem like a tiny matter, but the complaint filed Monday in the Michigan Court of Appeals said the board's Feb. 11 ruling has created "chaos and uncertainty" surrounding the validity of petitions for ballot initiatives and for candidates collecting signatures to get on the ballot. 

"That chaos and uncertainty threatens to deny ballot access to petitions and candidates based on unforeseen and lawless change in procedure" by the Board of State Canvassers, the lawsuit claimed. 

This is an example of a union label or "bug" that was included on a Michigan ballot petition, according to a lawsuit filed in the Michigan Court of Appeals.

The suit was filed by the ballot committee Raise the Wage Michigan, which also has asked the Supreme Court to take the case directly to expedite the issue. The group is asking the court to declare unlawful the board's determination that union labels — often called a union "bug" — must conform to typeface requirements that petition text appear in 8-point type. 

The issue stems from a Feb. 11 meeting of the Board of State Canvassers, who deadlocked 2-2 along party lines after two Republicans on the board objected over the union bug font size being too small. As a result, two ballot initiative petitions were rejected as non-compliant as to their form, according to the complaint. 

The plaintiffs called the board's ruling a "novel, extra-statutory formatting rule." They stressed that the canvassers' actions broke with past practice, noting that they have "regularly" canvassed signatures on ballot proposal petitions and nominating petitions with similar labels without objecting. 

“Those two canvassers had approved petitions with small union labels in the past," said Democratic attorney Mark Brewer, who filed the suit on behalf of Raise the Wage. "This is ridiculous, hypocritical and clearly illegal.”

He is asking the court to declare that state election law does not require that text within a logo, symbol, label or other image on the petition be printed in 8-point type, and that the canvassers may not reject a petition for this reason. 

A spokeswoman, Tracy Wimmer, for Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson declined to comment “on a suit we are not named in for a board we do not have authority over.”

The debate at the canvassers' meeting prompted Benson to request a legal opinion from Attorney General Dana Nessel's office on the matter. Both officials are Democrats.

Republican canvasser Norm Shinkle told The Detroit News last week that groups submitting petitions can simply meet the 8-point text requirement by either making the font bigger or removing the union bug altogether.

"It's a legal issue. We just wanted to follow the law that anything on the petition has got to be 8-point font," Shinkle said. "We're just trying to do our job."

Shinkle said he never objected to the union bug text size in the past because it "never came up before."

In the meantime, the issue has prompted several campaigns to consider reprinting their nominating petitions and starting over to avoid their petitions potentially being thrown out as non-compliant and wasting loads of time and money two months from the filing deadline. 

Benson in her letter to Nessel noted that the Michigan Bureau of Elections has never interpreted the law as requiring that the 8-point typeface requirement apply to the text within a union bug, noting that she's approved "likely hundreds" of petitions with the standard union label in recent years. 

That includes "numerous" petitions the bureau has already approved for the current election cycle that feature a union label. Union bugs are nearly ubiquitous on Democratic petitions and campaign literature, with candidates saying they signify the printing was done in a union shop. 

The situation could affect Democrats candidates for offices such as U.S. House, judge, school board, even governor.

Benson's office updated its guidance for candidates last week, saying the Bureau of Elections would continue to accept nominating petitions "without regard" to the union label text size.

Republican state canvasser Norm Shinkle said he objected to the union labels on petitions because "We just wanted to follow the law that anything on the petition has got to be 8-point font. We're just trying to do our job."

But it also advised candidates to consult with legal counsel about whether to circulate or submit signatures on petition sheets that have union labels with non-8 point type, even if they were pre-approved by the elections bureau. 

The Michigan Democratic Party in a statement last week argued that the Republicans canvassers had rejected the petitions based on the presence of the union labels and for "no other reason." 

Shinkle last week said he wasn't aware that the matter was causing confusion among candidates or ballot initiative groups. 

"That wasn't our intent. It was just brought up. We read the law. It's 8-point font, so what the heck?" Shinkle said. "We say, 'Well, make it 8 point, OK?' They say, 'No problem.' So it's 8 point, and we follow the law. It was pretty basic."

mburke@detroitnews.com

Staff writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.