Senate panel advances bill limiting ballot petitions over loud objections

Activists gathered for the "Fight for our Families" protest at the Michigan Capitol against GOP Lame Duck bills, Dec. 12, 2018 | Ken Coleman

A Michigan Senate panel on Wednesday afternoon OK’d a bill that would vastly limit the ability of Michigan citizens to get proposals on the ballot — like the three initiatives for marijuana, redistricting and voting rights that passed on Nov. 6.

Lame Duck protest at the Michigan Capitol, Dec. 12, 2018 | Ken Coleman

House Bill 6595, sponsored by state Rep. Jim Lower (R-Cedar Lake), could come up for a vote on the full Senate floor in the waning days of the frantic Lame Duck session.

As the Advance previously reported, the House last week narrowly passed the bill capping the number of petition signatures from geographic areas. On Wednesday afternoon, the Senate Elections and Government Reform Committee followed suit on a party-line 4-1 vote.

Lame Duck began with a number of election-related bills, but two of the biggest ones don’t appear to have survived. As the Advance reported, a bill looks dead that would have tinkered with the redistricting commission outlined in Proposal 2. That’s Senate Bill 1254, sponsored by state Sen. Phil Pavlov (R-St. Clair Twp.).

House Elections and Ethics Committee Chair Aaron Miller (R-Sturgis) declined to take the bill up on Wednesday morning.

Aaron Miller

I don’t have a plan to bring up Senate Bill 1254 before the end of the year in this committee,” he told reporters. “In this committee, this is the decision we brought up and I can’t speak for leadership and what they might do outside of my jurisdiction.”

And legislation that netted national attention, Senate Bill 1248, sponsored by term-limited state Sen. Dave Robertson (R-Grand Blanc), has also been left for dead. That would have taken campaign finance oversight away from Democratic Secretary of State-elect Jocelyn Benson.

HB 6595, however, is alive and well.

The bill would mandate that no more than 15 percent of petition signatures could come from any congressional district and that any signatures exceeding that would be considered “invalid.” The legislation also would require that paid petition gatherers indicate their paid status and register with the Secretary of State.

Critics argue this would make the process harder for average citizens and hurt Michigan’s population bases in cities and suburbs, which tend to be both more ethnically diverse and Democratic strongholds. They also say this is GOP retaliation for the successful progressive ballot proposals.

Morris Hood III

A broad coalition of groups in opposition to the proposal has formed, ranging from Right to Life of Michigan to American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Michigan chapter, various unions and the Sierra Club.

“Making it harder for Michigan citizens to make their voices heard through ballot proposals is the exact opposite direction our state should be headed,” Judy Karandjeff, president of the League of Women Voters of Michigan, said in a statement. “Only special interests benefit from this sort of lame duck legislation that undermines our democracy. We call on responsible leaders in the legislature and in the governor’s office to listen to the will of the people and defeat this bill.”

Despite angry testimony, Republicans on the Senate Elections and Government Reform Committee passed the bill and said there would likely be amendments made on the Senate floor.

Sen. Morris Hood III (D-Detroit), the lone Democrat on the committee, however said he believes that committees are the place to work on bills, rather than moving them to the floor and marking them up from there.

“I think [the bill] might be a solution looking for a problem,” Hood said. “I think, quite honestly, this bill stinks to high heaven … and I don’t think it’s necessary at this time.”

Business interest groups have pushed for the legislation, saying they believe it will cut down on fraud. Many of those groups have opposed recent ballot proposals.   

Sharon Dolente, an attorney and voting rights strategist for ACLU of Michigan, pointed out to senators that multiple courts have struck down requirements that paid petition gatherers register with the government as a violation of the First Amendment.

Dolente specifically pointed to the 1999 U.S. Supreme Court case, Buckley v. Constitutional Law Foundation, which concluded that Colorado infringed on political speech when it attempted to implement registration for signature gatherers.

Jack Brandenburg

“No state Legislature has implemented the proposal that you’re attempting to implement,” Dolente told Senators in committee testimony this afternoon. “None.”

On Tuesday, Bill Rustem, a former adviser to both GOP Govs. Rick Snyder and William Milliken, and Doug Ross, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, wrote Snyder an open letter asking him to veto HB 6595 if it comes to his desk. Ross led the repeal of the sales tax on food and medicine in 1974 and Rustem worked on the bottle deposit initiative championed by Milliken in 1976.

Nonetheless, GOP Senators who voted to advance the bill Wednesday afternoon said that angry testimony wouldn’t sway their intention to vote for the legislation.

While walking back to the Capitol following the hearing, Sen. Jack Brandenburg (R-Harrison Twp.) largely declined to comment on his “yes” vote. But he said that while he understands people may be passionate about the legislation, he’s aware that “a lot of people have been upset with me in my life.”

Nick Manes
Nick Manes is a former Michigan Advance reporter, covering West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels.

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