Nobody can gather petition signatures right now. What does that mean for 2020 candidates, ballot questions?

Volunteers gathering petition signatures for Sen. Gary Peters, July 30, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

As more people stay at home to slow the spread of COVID-19 and flatten the curve, face-to-face petition gathering for 2020 elections has ground to a halt. 

This is a big problem for ballot question committees, which have to gather at least 425,059 valid signatures for constitutional amendments, 340,047 for state statutes and 212,529 for veto referendums. With such a high threshold, these unforeseen circumstances could mean some initiatives may have to fold. 

John James (left) and Gary Peters (right) | Photos by Ken Coleman and Andrew Roth

To a lesser degree, it impacts political candidates, especially those running for Congress. For the U.S. House, candidates need 1,000 valid signatures to get on the ballot. For the U.S. Senate race, both U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) and Republican businessman John James already collected more than the 15,000 signatures required. 

The climb is lower for state House candidates, who can pay a $100 fee or collect 100 valid signatures. The state Senate isn’t up until 2022.

At the time of publication, the state is reporting 334 positive cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by a new coronavirus, but health officials believe this number is actually significantly higher. There are also three known deaths due to complications caused by COVID-19.

In a letter sent to Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), the Fair Tax Michigan campaign asked for legislation that will allow an online petition signature option for this year. The group wants to get a graduated income tax on the November ballot.

“In the face of this public health pandemic, our government and communities are adjusting the way we do things for the safety of all of us; making petition signing digitally accessible can and should be one of those adjustments,” the letter said. 

Michigan could vote on a graduated income tax in November

The Use of State and Local Parks Fund amendment is the only proposal currently on the ballot, but there are five other potential measures, including the graduated income tax, that have been circulating. The others are the so-called “heartbeat” abortion ban, the dilation and evacuation abortion ban, the LGBTQ discrimination ban and a clampdown on lobbyists. 

“This crisis has shown us that the massive inequality and lack of investment in critical infrastructure puts us all in a perilous situation,” Fair Tax Michigan Campaign Manager Eli Isaguirre said in a statement Thursday. “We believe that a pathway to allow for signatures to be collected can be done and hope our legislative leaders are able to prioritize keeping us safe, ensuring everyone has the means to survive the economic crisis facing us and ensuring our democracy continues.”

Progress Michigan Executive Director Lonnie Scott said a coalition his group belongs to is considering options to continue the Close Lansing Loopholes ballot proposal, which would ban gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers, and is planning to come to a consensus next week. 

But for now, Scott says it does “not support changing the laws around signature gathering because, frankly, we just don’t trust [Republican legislators] to do the right thing.

“We commend Fair Tax Michigan for looking to creative alternatives to meet the challenges posed by COVID-19, but do not believe the Republican leadership in the legislature is receptive to making changes to the ballot petition process,” Scott said. “Republicans love trying to rig the process against the people, whether it’s trying to make the ballot initiative process more challenging or outright distortion of the ballot process through their adopt and amend schemes.”

Voters could decide government transparency initiative that includes sweeping lobbying restrictions

Glengariff pollster Richard Czuba, who surveyed for the LGBTQ civil rights proposal, is encouraging Michiganders to request the petition be mailed to them so they can return it signed. 

“Hey Michiganders. Strange times require strange measures! If you haven’t signed the petition to expand the Elliot Larsen Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination against LGBT Michiganders — you can now have it mailed to you,” Czuba wrote on Facebook Thursday. 

As for the state House addressing the issues of congressional candidate signature gathering or extending the candidate filing deadline past April 21, state House GOP spokesman Gideon D’Assandro told the Advance he has “not heard of any legislation being drafted to address this issue yet.”

Senate GOP spokeswoman Amber McCann didn’t respond to an Advance inquiry if the Senate might address signature gathering or filing deadline issues.

At least one other state has taken action on signature gathering amid COVID-19. On Tuesday, Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo relaxed rules around the collection of signatures during the pandemic by reducing the number of signatures needed for congressional and state candidates by 30%.

New Michigan anti-LGBTQ discrimination ballot measure includes religious beliefs protections

While state leaders adjust to the measures put in place to protect public safety, other parts of the state’s democratic process are moving online. 

On Wednesday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed Executive Order 2020-15, which temporarily alters the Open Meetings Act to allow public bodies to conduct meetings electronically until April 15.

That was met with concern from both Shirkey and the Michigan Press Association, who raised issues of transparency.