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Opinion: Secretary of state can certify petition signatures in 60 days

Ruth Johnson

A citizens group called Unlock Michigan recently submitted petition signatures for a statewide Initiated Law for certification by the Michigan Department of State. There has been much wrangling over how long it should take to canvass those petition signatures to determine their adequacy, and whether that would leave the Michigan Legislature enough time to vote on the initiated law this year.

Having served eight years as the Michigan secretary of state, I’ve overseen the canvassing of many legislative initiatives and proposed constitutional amendments. I know this isn’t a game of “Name That Tune,” but I can honestly say that I can “Canvass That Petition” in 53 days!

Unlock Michigan recently submitted petition signatures for a statewide Initiated Law, Johnson writes.

In 2018, a citizens group promoting a constitutional amendment involving election law reform submitted their petitions about as late as possible in the election cycle. We applied a simple rule to our decision-making process in tackling their petition submission: If it can be done, it must be done. It wasn’t going to be easy to get the work done in time to finalize the statewide general election ballot by the statutory deadline, but it was possible. So we just got busy.

While I had long been supportive of secure no-reason absentee voting, I personally did not agree with some provisions of Proposal 3 that I feel stripped integrity from our election processes. But my personal views couldn’t factor into this decision. The people of Michigan did their job in proposing this constitutional amendment. My job, and the job of my department, was to (move heaven and earth if necessary to) certify that their petition either had sufficient or insufficient signatures to qualify for the ballot.

You probably know how the story turned out. Obviously the proponents of the proposal submitted sufficient signatures to quality for the ballot. We certified as such to the Board of State Canvassers in 53 days. Proposal 3 appeared on the general election ballot. Voters said "yes," and it’s part of their constitution today.

Now fast forward to today. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson is facing a decision like the one I faced. Benson told reporters petition certification in the past has taken an average of 105 days. She made that comment on the day when 2020 had just 100 days left in it, suggesting that she had no intention of moving forward with certification this year.

But I suggest the correct standard is the one I used: If it can be done, it must be done — and it can.

It turns out that Benson’s director of elections agrees. Director Jonathan Brater declared in a filing in federal court that the process of petition certification takes “approximately 60 days,” which is not far off the 53-day performance of the Bureau of Elections in 2018.

There is no doubt that the proponents of the Unlock Michigan initiative fully intended their proposal to be brought before the Legislature this year. The group collected a huge number of signatures — nearly 200,000, more than the legally required minimum. And the group collected them in just 80 days, a full 100 days less than the maximum allowed. If there is any doubt that they intended prompt consideration of their initiative, all one has to do is look at how rapidly they moved to submit their petitions.

Ruth Johnson

The Michigan Supreme Court recently ruled in a case related to the law addressed in the Unlock Michigan initiative. The court majority opinion struck down the law in a 4-3 decision of the court. A different court in a different case could rule the opposite in the future. This is all the more reason to move quickly to get it off the books now.

Ballot initiatives are for the people to decide, and not for an elected official who is supposed to be impartial to play politics with and manipulate the system to stall. If Benson delays certification it disenfranchises the voters of Michigan.

Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, is a state senator representing Michigan’s 14th District and is chair of the Senate Elections Committee. Johnson served as Michigan secretary of state from 2011-18.