GOP clamps down on ballot proposals after progressive victories Nov. 6

Lame Duck protest, Dec. 12, 2018 | Ken Coleman
Updated, 6:36 a.m. Dec. 21

Legislation that would make it more difficult to gather signatures for ballot proposals is headed Gov. Rick Snyder’s way.

It hasn’t escaped notice that the measure was introduced and sped through the GOP-led Legislature only after three progressive initiatives for marijuana, redistricting reform and voting rights passed on Nov. 6.

The Michigan Senate early on Friday morning granted its approval to House Bill 6595, sponsored by state Rep. James Lower (R-Cedar Lake). The House quickly concurred with changes, sending the bill to Snyder.

James Lower

The bill mandates that no more than 15 percent of signatures come from any one 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.

The Senate vote was 26-12, with Sen. Tory Rocca (R-Sterling Heights) joining Democrats in opposing the bill. The House concurred on a 57-47 vote.

State Sen. Steve Bieda (D-Warren) rose to give his “no” vote explanation to a tired and restless chamber.

“Good morning, everybody!” he said hoarsely.

He said that the “foundation of democracy” is that voters have elected officials who represent their interests, but when lawmakers don’t, “Surely there should be a way for to make voices heard.”

Bieda said that those who initiated ballot drives for marijuana, redistricting, voting rights and the minimum wages were examples of “citizens being the change they wish to see.” He said the Legislature shouldn’t be infringing on that process.

Morris Hood III

Sen. Morris Hood III (D-Detroit) also seemed weary as he protested HB 6595. He said that he asked in committee: “How was this going to work?” Hood said he still hasn’t received an answer, but was told, “‘We’ll figure it out later.’

“Well, here’s later. So what the heck are we doing? It’s just common sense but I guess common sense isn’t that common,” he said.

Critics also argue the bill hurts Michigan’s population bases in cities and suburbs, which tend to be both more ethnically diverse and Democratic strongholds.

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.

Republicans didn’t speak in support of the bill on final passage, as has been customary on many issues during Lame Duck. But Sen. Jack Brandenburg (R-Harrison Twp.) said on Wednesday that he backs the measure, despite objections, noting, “A lot of people have been upset with me in my life.”

As the Advance previously reported, the House last week narrowly passed the bill capping the number of petition signatures from geographic areas. On Wednesday, the bill moved from the Senate Elections and Government Reform Committee.

A broad coalition of groups opposing the bill hails from both sides of the ideological spectrum. That includes Right to Life of Michigan to American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Michigan chapter, various unions and the Sierra Club.

Many voting rights experts expect the legislation to wind up in court, as similar proposals have in other states, as the Advance has previously reported. In 1999, a Colorado case was tried in the Supreme Court and was overturned. For some elections officials, the idea of passing legislation that has a high likelihood of winding up in court needs to end.

A protestor demonstrates during a Dec. 12, 2018, rally in the Capitol | Ken Coleman

“The lawyers have given you more than sufficient evidence about why this is going to wind up in court,” John Gleason, a former state legislator and current Genesee County clerk, said during his committee testimony on Wednesday. “I’m tired of our government being run by referendum and judges. We have to start doing things at a higher level of responsibility as representatives of the people.”

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.

Bill Rustem

Two other big election-related bills have croaked in Lame Duck. 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.).

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.

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Susan J. Demas is a 19-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.
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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