State panel wrestles with ballot initiative uncertainty

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A state panel that approves citizen petition drive language mulled the idea Monday of adding a large disclaimer to guidelines for ballot circulators that their efforts could hinge on a pending court case.

Attorney General Dana Nessel issued a legal opinion last month arguing that key sections are unconstitutional of a GOP law making it more difficult for groups to gather signatures for statewide ballot measures.

Attorney General Dana Nessel | Andrew Roth

Voting rights and campaign finance ballot groups then sued the state last month to challenge the law. And Republicans last week announced that they’ll sue to protect their 2018 law, which was sponsored by state Rep. James Lower (R-Greenville).

Since then, uncertainty has shrouded what may become of those rules.

The Board of State Canvassers wrestled with that problem at a public hearing Monday in Delta Township — toying with the idea of adding a prominent disclaimer that the validity of the signatures groups collect could depend on the courts.

Julie Matuzak, a Democratic board member, pushed to have the large “warning statement” to “safeguard people’s right to petition.”

In May, the League of Women Voters of Michigan and Michiganders for Fair and Transparent Elections, along with two voters, filed suit against Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. They have asked the state Court of Claims to freeze the 2018 Lame Duck law making it tougher for ballot groups to put questions before a statewide vote.

Voting rights, campaign finance ballot groups challenge petition law

Under the law signed by GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder, no group can gather more than 15 percent of its signatures to meet a threshold for making it onto a statewide ballot from any single congressional district.

Despite the pending court case, the Board of State Canvassers still must issue guidance to ballot groups in accordance with Nessel’s legal opinion.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, Oct. 17, 2016. | U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jim Greenhill, Wikimedia Commons

But should ballot groups follow that rule or not? Will the signatures they gather be valid if the Court of Claims reaches a different conclusion than Nessel?

The answer is not clear.

“I think and I hope that the courts involved will recognize that this could be an issue because, again, we don’t want to hold anyone back from being able to move forward on these,” said Bureau of Elections Director Sally Williams.

“You hate to see people spend money, go through all this effort, and many many many voters signing these — to have them not count because, you know, what might be seen as a technicality.”

An anti-abortion group called Michigan Values Life told the Michigan Advance previously that it’s concerned about the underlying uncertainty.

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

Norm Shinkle, a Republican member of the Board of State Canvassers, said the court could “throw cold water” on ballot groups, but added that he doesn’t think that will happen.

“But we still have quite a bit of time between now and the 2020 election, so people might want to wait, I don’t know,” he said.

Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein covers the governor’s office, criminal justice and the environment. Before that, he wrote about state government and politics for the Detroit News, the Associated Press and MIRS News and won a Society of Professional Journalism award for open government reporting. He studied philosophy at Michigan State University, where he wrote for both The State News and Capital News Service. He began his journalism career freelancing for The Sturgis Journal, his hometown paper.

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