AG to weigh in on another GOP Lame Duck law

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Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel “welcomes” the opinion request from Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson that challenges the legality of the newly established law limiting ballot petition drives, Public Act 608 of 2018.

Dana Nessel, Oct. 16, 2013 | Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

“Restricting the right of Michiganders to participate in the political process is a serious subject matter,” said Nessel, a Democrat. “PA 608 puts a limit on the people’s voice and that is cause for great concern — something a rushed Lame Duck Legislature failed to regard in passing this law.”

This is another sign of the sea change in Michigan’s government since Democrats took over all elected executive branch offices on Jan. 1.

It’s the second time that a Democratic executive has asked for an AG opinion on GOP legislation passed in Lame Duck. During her first week on the job, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer asked Nessel for a formal opinion on the legality of the new Enbridge Line 5 tunnel running under the Straits of Mackinac.

Even before PA 608 was signed, voting rights experts warned it would wind up in court, because 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.

Nessel noted there’s an increased importance of tackling the request of Benson, a fellow Democrat, since the 2020 election cycle is underway.

Jocelyn Benson

“Secretary of State Benson has challenged and raised the important question of this Act’s constitutionality and my office is prepared to tackle this request promptly,” Nessel said.

The AG said she encourages interested or concerned parties to forward a brief or legal memo on the issues raised by the opinion request.  

The Advance talked to Benson in an extensive interview last week and asked the Democrat about asking Nessel to issue an opinion on PA 608. She said that she’s “concerned with any laws that will affect people’s right and access to the political process.

“It’s an important right that citizens have,” Benson added. “I know that there are strong constitutional, First Amendment protections for citizens’ access to the ballot initiative process, in particular.”

The Republican-led Legislature during Lame Dame last month passed the measure limiting the number of signatures that organizers can collect from voters in any single congressional district. It caps the number at 15 percent of the total require to place citizen-initiated legislation on the ballot.

GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder signed the bill in one of his last acts before leaving office.

“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,” Rep. Aaron Miller (R-Sturgis) said during the debate last year. “This proposal ensures voters across Michigan participate in the decision on whether an initiative proposal should move forward.”

Lame Duck protest, Dec. 12, 2018 | Ken Coleman

Democrats countered that the law makes 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.

The bill was opposed by groups on the right and left, including Right to Life of Michigan, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Michigan chapter, various unions and the Sierra Club.

Voters Not Politicians, the group that spearheaded Proposal 2, has already been exploring challenges to the ballot initiative limits law, including a possible petition drive, the Advance previously reported.

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman reports on Southeast Michigan, education, civil rights and voting rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.
Susan J. Demas is a 17-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.

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