League of Women Voters asks AG to criminally investigate Unlock Michigan petition drive

    "Unlock Michigan" petition sign at the Second Amendment March at the Capitol, Sept. 17, 2020 | Laina G. Stebbins

    The League of Women Voters of Michigan (LWV) on Friday sent a letter asking Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel to conduct a criminal investigation into a petition drive that aims to revoke an emergency powers-granting law Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has used throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. 

    The LWV, a nonpartisan voter education group, asked Nessel to look into the signature-gathering tactics of Unlock Michigan, a GOP-linked coalition pushing a petition drive that could repeal the Emergency Powers of Governor Act of 1945 (EPGA). 

    The group says it’s collected 500,000 signatures, exceeding the 340,047 valid signatures of registered Michigan voters it needs to gather within 180 days. If the Bureau of Elections certifies enough signatures, the measure goes to the GOP-led Legislature for approval. The governor does not have veto power. If the Legislature passes on the initiative, it then goes before voters.

    This week, the Detroit Free Press reported a trainer for Unlock Michigan told signature collectors to use illicit methods to get voters to support the petition drive. 

    That prompted the LWV’s board to vote to support a “full criminal investigation” of Unlock Michigan, its petition firms, volunteer and paid circulators. They also want a review of all signatures gathered. 

    The Michigan Legislature could repeal Whitmer’s emergency powers. And she can’t veto the law.

    “In order to protect the integrity of the ballot initiative process, we must determine the full extent of potentially improper and illegal activity in connection with Unlock Michigan,” LWV President Christina Schlitt wrote to Nessel. “Illegal and improper acts can infect Michigan’s petition process, erode the integrity of our election process and undermine our democracy.” 

    Ryan Jarvi, press secretary for Nessel, said the LWV letter is likely still en route to the AG’s office since it was dated Friday. 

    Jarvi noted they have received another request in the same vein as LWV’s letter. 

    “We have received and are reviewing a letter requesting a criminal investigation of Unlock Michigan,” Jarvi told the Advance via email. 

    That letter is from John Pirich, a Michigan election lawyer who on Thursday asked Nessel and Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to look into “possible illegalities” by Unlock Michigan. 

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    The EPGA establishes that “during times of great public crisis, disaster, rioting, catastrophe, or similar public emergency within the state . . . the governor may proclaim a state of emergency and designate the area involved.” Whitmer has frequently invoked it to issue pandemic-related states of emergency and executive orders.

    The petition drive aims to collect enough signatures to nullify the law, which the coalition calls “outdated.”

    Fred Wszolek, spokesperson for Unlock Michigan, referred the Advance to a Twitter thread in which he denied the trainer had encouraged illegal signature-gathering tactics. 

    “Lost in this farce is the fact that an army of 80,000 activists collected >500,000 signatures in <80 days to #UnlockMichigan, and put an end to @GovWhitmer’s rule-by-decree,” Wszolek wrote on Twitter.

    C.J. Moore
    C.J. Moore covers the environment and the Capitol. She previously worked at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland as a public affairs staff science writer. She also previously covered crop sustainability and coal pollution issues for Great Lakes Echo. In addition, she served as editor in chief at The State News and covered its academics and research beat. She is a journalism graduate student at Michigan State University.