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Lawsuit Seeks Placement Of Voting Measure On Michigan Ballot

A month ahead of Michigan’s March presidential primary, there’s been a 70 percent increase in absentee ballot requests, after voters in the state passed no-reason absentee voting in 2018.
James Durkee
Flickr Creative Commons

Organizers of a Michigan initiative to allow same-day voter registration and no-reason absentee voting filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday demanding that the state certify their measure for the November ballot.

Promote the Vote, which includes the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and other groups, sued along with three voters. They accuse state election officials of improperly rejecting 24 "incomplete" signatures included in a 500-signature random sample of 432,000 that were submitted in July.

The sample was inconclusive, triggering the selection of a larger 3,300-signature sample. That process is ongoing.

The lawsuit charges that Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, members of the bipartisan Board of State Canvassers and elections director Sally Williams have applied the state election law "in an arbitrary, discriminatory and inconsistent manner" — denying or delaying Promote the Vote's access to the ballot and depriving citizens of their constitutional rights.

Promote the Vote says it contacted the 24 voters whose signatures were rejected as incomplete and secured from 13 sworn affidavits that their signatures are genuine. If those 13 were counted, the ballot committee would have a sufficient number in the 500-signature sample to automatically qualify, according to the lawsuit.

Promote the Vote says it sued because certification of ballot proposals must occur by Sept. 7 and it fears it would not have enough time to investigate, respond to and correct anticipated errors in the elections bureau's review of the larger sample. The lawsuit alleges that the bureau and canvassers have treated the ballot drive differently than other ballot initiatives by not providing adequate information about the petition review and not allowing input.

Secretary of state spokesman Fred Woodhams declined to comment on the lawsuit other than that it "surprised" state officials because "the Bureau of Elections has used the same process for reviewing petition signatures for decades. The lawsuit will only delay work completing the larger sample and issuing a staff report, which is expected Friday."

He noted that a larger sample was taken earlier this year for an initiative to repeal Michigan's prevailing wage law. Once that measure was certified, the Republican-led Legislature adopted it rather than allow a public vote.

"All petitions are treated equally," Woodhams said.

Promote the Vote needs about 316,000 valid voter signatures for its constitutional amendment to get a public vote.

Absentee voters currently must be at least 60 years old, be out of town when the polls are open or be unable to vote on Election Day due to a physical disability, religious tenets or incarceration. The measure would let people vote absentee without giving a reason.

It also would allow citizens to register by mail closer to Election Day and in person at any time, including on Election Day. The proposal would automatically register people when they conduct business with the secretary of state regarding a driver's license or state ID card, unless they decline to be registered.

Another provision would reinstate a straight-ticket voting option, which Republican lawmakers and Gov. Rick Snyder banned in 2016 but which has continued during a legal challenge. Republicans generally oppose efforts to make it easier to vote, including the ballot initiative, citing concerns about election integrity. Democrats say the straight-party voting ban and other GOP-backed moves are examples of voter suppression.

The case was assigned to U.S. District Judge Terrence Berg in Detroit.

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