Late last night, the GOP-controlled Michigan House approved new rules for petition drives. Legislation would limit the number of signatures that could be collected from voters who live in any one part of the state, something a prominent Democratic attorney decried as unconstitutional.
In a 60-49 vote around 11 p.m., the lower chamber passed House Bill 6595, sponsored by Rep. Jim Lower (R-Cedar Lake). The bill moved out of a House committee earlier Wednesday.
HB 6595 caps the percentage of signatures that could be collected from one congressional district to 15 percent of the total number of signatures. Signatures in excess of the applicable percentage would be invalid.
Lower said the legislation secures more “statewide buy-in” and places “safeguards so that voters can have confidence that there hasn’t been fraud and deception in the collection of signatures.”
Some Republicans made the explicit case that rural voters deserved more of a say in the process.
“Voters in St. Joseph and Cass counties deserve to participate in the initiative process just as much as voters in Michigan’s big cities,” said Rep. Aaron Miller (R-Sturgis). “Right now, many rural communities are ignored when petition circulators gather signatures for proposals to amend state law — especially when they’re funded by rich, out-of-state special interests. This proposal ensures voters across Michigan participate in the decision on whether an initiative proposal should move forward.”
Critics, however, argue changes would make the process harder for average citizens and are a swipe at Michigan’s population bases in cities and suburbs, which tend to be both more ethnically diverse and Democratic strongholds.
Opponents also said that Republicans are retaliating against voters for plunking on Nov. 6 for three statewide initiatives that many Republicans opposed. Proposal 1 legalizes marijuana, Proposal 2 creates a nonpartisan redistricting commission and Proposal 3 contained several voting rights provisions, including no-reason absentee voting and straight-party-ticket voting.
“It says to 85 percent of the people in any congressional district that you don’t have the right to petition on a particular issue,” said Mark Brewer, a former state Democratic Party chair who has worked as an attorney on several ballot initiatives. “It completely takes away their right to petition and it’s unconstitutional.”
Right to Life of Michigan, a group typically closely allied with the GOP, opposed the bill. The organization has relied on the petition-gathering process for several initiatives.
Other groups against the legislation include the ACLU of Michigan, AFSCME, Michigan AFL-CIO, League of Women Voters and the Sierra Club.
Under the bill, each petition circulator would also have to file a signed affidavit with the Secretary of State indicating whether s/he was a paid or volunteer signature gatherer, according to the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency analysis of the bill. Signatures gathered by a circulator who had not filed the affidavit would be invalid.
If a circulator used an incorrect address or provided any fraudulent information on the certificate of circulator, any signature obtained by that circulator would be invalid.
Currently, the Michigan Constitution guarantees the right to initiate legislation or propose constitutional amendments through petition drives, but it does not put any limits from what part of the state signatures can be collected.
Democratic petition bills pass
The House also overwhelmingly approved a set of Democratic-sponsored bills designed to provide more transparency and accountability during the petition circulation process.
State Rep. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) sponsored HB 4635, HB 5208 and HB 5209. The bills are in response to unions’ and Democrats’ objections over the petition drive that led to Michigan’s prevailing wage law being repealed this year.
“Ballot initiatives are one of the most important tools available to everyday Michiganders to make their voices heard,” he said. “Yet as we saw with the underhanded tactics employed to gather signatures for the prevailing wage repeal initiative, some circulators doing the bidding of corporate CEOs will use deception as a tool get what they want.
“It’s despicable to tell someone that they’re signing a petition to ‘protect wages, benefits and pensions’ for teachers and construction workers when they were in fact doing the opposite,” Moss continued. “Michigan’s working families depend on prevailing wage to keep food on the table, and those circulators were able to — legally, at the time — manipulate voters into helping rob them of that stability. That’s absolutely unconscionable, and I’m glad we’re taking a stand for transparency and accountability today by ensuring no one is ever able to do that again.”
Legislation outlines a process for removing a person’s name from a petition. It would also bar organizations from hiring someone to collect signatures if s/he had committed an election crime. Signature collectors would be required to wear a badge saying if they were paid or volunteers and they would be prohibited from misrepresenting that status.