SOS moves to resolve voting lawsuit, GOP plans suit to salvage ballot initiative law

Susan J. Demas

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said on Wednesday that her office is launching initiatives aimed at resolving a 2018 voting rights lawsuit, an announcement that came shortly after the GOP-controlled House and Senate said they would sue to protect a bill restricting ballot petitions.

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

The overlapping legal developments highlight a simmering tension between the state’s GOP-controlled state Legislature and its Democratic-controlled executive offices, as the latter attempt to deliver on key campaign promises by rolling back some of the gains of almost a decade of unified Republican rule.

Republicans announced today they plan to file suit over Benson’s intent to follow a May opinion from Attorney General Dana Nessel that declared unconstitutional parts of a GOP law passed during last year’s Lame Duck session. That law, Public Act 608, capped the number of signatures for a ballot initiative that could come from any one congressional district.

State Rep. James Lower (R-Greenville) was its original sponsor, and he argued in a statement today that in abiding by Nessel’s opinion and failing to follow the law as passed last year, Benson’s office is skirting their legal obligation.

Rep. Jim Lower | Nick Maness

“Nothing about this law is unconstitutional… the attorney general and secretary of state are grasping at straws in an attempt to circumvent the requirements of a duly enacted law,” Lower said. “They don’t get to pick and choose which laws to enforce based on personal preference. Their role is to follow and enforce the laws that are on the books.”

Benson spokesperson Shawn Starkey told the Advance, “We haven’t yet received the lawsuits. We will review them once we receive them.”

Nessel spokesperson Kelly Rossman-McKinney said, “We remain exceedingly confident in our opinion [OAG No. 7310] and expect our legal arguments and assessment of the constitutionality of PA 608 will be upheld by any court which reviews the matter.”

Jocelyn Benson at a press conference in Flint, Feb. 21, 2019 | Ken Coleman

Meanwhile, Benson announced Wednesday afternoon that her office would be taking several steps to remedy the claims in a lawsuit filed by University of Michigan students last year against the Republican former secretary of state, Ruth Johnson, as stated in a letter filed by the attorney general’s office on Benson’s behalf.

That lawsuit argued that it was unconstitutional to require Michigan voters to have the same address on both their voter registration and personal license, as well as to require them to vote in person for the first time if they registered by mail or a registration drive.

Earlier this year, the secretary of state declared the latter requirement unenforceable under the terms of last year’s Proposal 3, which expanded voting rights in the state.

In a statement, Benson’s spokesperson said that declaration “in addition to other new voting options such as same-day registration, [will] lessen the burden on student voters,” and announced voter outreach efforts to drive registration on Michigan’s campuses.

Benson expects SCOTUS to rule on Michigan gerrymandering case

After the Republican-controlled state Senate passed a budget last month featuring drastic cuts to her office, Benson told the Advance that it amounted to “cutting off the state’s nose to spite our face,” but said that her “expectation… is that we’ll reach some sort of compromise that recognizes that this office works best when we’re in collaboration with the Legislature and not being unduly harmed by it.”

Attorney General Dana Nessel, April 16, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

The attorney general’s opinion on the voting rights law over which Benson is now being sued is Nessel’s second since she took office in January. Both declared GOP-passed legislation unconstitutional. Her prior opinion in January made defunct the quasi-governmental authority that previously oversaw Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline.

She also settled a lawsuit in March on terms favorable to two plaintiffs, a same-sex couple named Kristy and Dana Dumont, who had sued the previous Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette for alleged discrimination over adoption rights.

State Rep. Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain) said acidly in a statement last month regarding Line 5, “The power to write the laws is reserved exclusively to 148 people called ‘lawmakers.’ If the attorney general wants to start writing laws, I welcome and encourage her to run for state representative next year.”

Rep. Beau LaFave
Beau LaFave

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) even signaled in April his willingness to begin impeachment proceedings against Nessel.

In an interview with the Advance at this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference, Nessel said that her office’s ability to act on Line 5 was a key factor why she ran in 2018.

“I remember walking out of [a meeting of anti-Line 5 activists] absolutely horrified and returning to my wife and saying, ‘I think I’m going to run for attorney general,’” Nessel said.

“Because if there’s no one out there that is willing to utilize the position of attorney general the way that I know it can be, which is to, you know, work independently, utilizing that office to decommission [Line 5], then I think I’d have to do it.’”

Derek Robertson
Derek Robertson covers local government, education, health care and the social safety net, and LGBTQ issues. Previously, he wrote for Politico Magazine in Washington, and before that covered local politics in Chicago. He is a Genesee County native and graduate of both Wayne State University, where he studied history, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He enjoys film, the Detroit Pistons and his cat. He once competed in the National Spelling Bee, but was eliminated before any potential ESPN appearances.

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