Supreme Court clears way for union labels to stay on petition initiatives

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Union labels on petition initiatives do not need to meet font size requirements mandated for text on other parts of a petition initiative, the Michigan Supreme Court ordered Monday. 

The rule requiring 8-point font for text on the rest of the petition "neither expressly nor implicitly precludes the inclusion of a printer's mark," the high court's majority ruled. 

The question of whether union logos should be allowed on petitions came before the Supreme Court after the Board of State Canvassers on Feb. 11 deadlocked along party lines, with Republicans arguing that the typeface on the union logo was too small to comply with the 8-point font requirement.

The canvassers' decision, according to a lawsuit filed Feb. 21 by Raise the Wage Michigan, caused “chaos and uncertainty” about the validity of petitions already in the field that contain the union logos and are tasked with collecting more than 300,000 signatures.

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.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's campaign had sought to intervene in the case, noting it had collected more than 35,000 signatures to qualify for the November ballot on petition sheets that contained union labels and could be invalidated because of the canvassers’ decision. 

Whitmer's campaign, which is required to collect 15,000 valid signatures by April 19, filed her nominating petition last week after a canvasser filing in the supreme court suit said the board never intended for its decision to encompass candidate petitions. 

On Monday, Republican-nominated Justice David Viviano concurred with the order in part with respect to the rule being silent on the issue but he felt that silence "might reasonably imply that these marks are prohibited."

Democratic-nominated justices Richard Bernstein and Elizabeth Welch concurred in part with the court's decision but also would have allowed Whitmer to intervene in the lawsuit so the high court could also clarify that the "union label on a candidate's nominating petition is similarly not subject to type size requirements."

In his dissent, Republican-nominated Justice Brian Zahra said the allowance for union labels that don't follow the 8-point type rule was a "dubious" conclusion that should have had the benefit of arguments and supplemental briefing. Without those, Zahra said he would conclude canvassers should disapprove of initiatives bearing symbols with smaller type. 

"A petition posits serious questions to voters," Zahra wrote. "Symbols in support of groups and causes are distractions at the very least. I would end the practice of allowing symbols of any kind on petitions."