State board deadlocks on Unlock Michigan petition

"Unlock Michigan" petition sign at the Second Amendment March at the Capitol, Sept. 17, 2020 | Laina G. Stebbins
Updated, 4:24 p.m., 4/22/21, with comment from Unlock Michigan

The controversial GOP-linked campaign to permanently repeal a 76-year-old law that granted emergency powers to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for the first stretch of the COVID-19 pandemic has once again hit a snag, as the Board of State Canvassers deadlocked on approving the Unlock Michigan petition Thursday along party lines.

The deadlock comes one day after Attorney General Dana Nessel closed her months-long criminal investigation into Unlock Michigan, after citing insufficient evidence of malicious wrongdoing by the group but detailing unethical behavior by several individuals who were paid to collect signatures for the group.

Board of State Canvassers Chair Norman Shinkle and Member Tony Daunt, both Republicans, voted to approve the petition while Vice Chair Julie Matuzak and Member Jeannette Bradshaw, both Democrats, voted to reject it. The Bureau of Elections staff had recommended certification based on the number of satisfactory signatures collected.

The failure of the Unlock Michigan petition to gain the three-member threshold for approval means the final decision will likely be up to the courts, as the group can seek a court order for the board to certify its petition.

Unlock Michigan had been required to submit just about 338,000 valid signatures in early October. According to Bureau of Elections staff, the group submitted just over 434,000.

Unlock Michigan submits signatures to repeal Whitmer’s emergency powers as investigation looms

The two Democratic members on the board echoed the words of attorney Mark Brewer, former Michigan Democratic Party chair and an attorney for the Keep Michigan Safe group that opposes Unlock Michigan, who said during Thursday’s meeting that the board should conduct its own investigation of wrongdoing.

“I’m concerned about the validity of some of these signatures … [specifically] how these signatures were gathered,” Matuzak said. “And I think it behooves us to actually exercise our power to look at that. We are the gatekeepers of election integrity, and election integrity includes petitions. And I think we let down voters if we don’t exercise the power we have to make sure signatures were collected legally.

“So that’s why I’m in favor of the board conducting an investigation, calling in witnesses under oath, gathering information and trying to make a decision about this one way or the other,” Matuzak continued. 

The Democrat brought a motion up for a vote, which the Republicans on the board struck down.

“We applaud the members of the Board of State Canvassers who did the right thing today by voting against certifying the Unlock Michigan petition and commend them for demanding an independent investigation of Unlock Michigan’s sleazy, underhanded and illegal tactics, and that the Board do its business under properly adopted rules,” said Keep Michigan Safe spokesperson Mark Fisk.

State elections bureau greenlights signatures for initiative yanking Whitmer’s powers

Unlock Michigan spokesperson Fred Wszolek tweeted Wednesday that the board “failed to do its legal duty” to certify the petition and criticized the Democratic members for “predictable partisanship … in clear violation of the law and every court precedent.”

Wszolek also told the Advance that the “next step is filing in the [Michigan] Supreme Court for an order to make this board do its legal duty that they just refused to do today.”

I’m going to be pushing personally for sanctions and court costs against these two canvassers [Matuzak and Bradshaw] who just blatantly refused to do their job, knowing all of the court precedent involved,” Wszolek continued. “Until we hit some of these guys over the head with a two-by-four, they’re not going to understand that they have one job to do and that’s to say, yup, staff report is approved. That’s it. They don’t get a whole lot of other discretion.”*

Unlock Michigan’s petition seeks to permanently nullify the 1945 Emergency Powers of the Governor Act (EPGA), one of two long-held laws Whitmer leaned on to issue emergency orders during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A narrow GOP majority of the Michigan Supreme Court struck down the law in October as unconstitutional, although they noted that Whitmer had interpreted the law correctly.

Despite the EPGA being overturned, Unlock Michigan moved forward with its petition with the intention of making sure the new Democratic-nominated majority Michigan Supreme Court wouldn’t rule differently.

If certified, the measure would head to the GOP-led state Legislature for approval. Whitmer would not have veto power. If the state Legislature passes on it, the measure would go before voters.

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