Michigan GOP Advances Bill To Make Ballot Drives Harder
Michigan Republicans moved Wednesday to curtail ballot initiatives by advancing a measure limiting how many signatures could come from any one region of the state, the latest proposal assailed by critics as an unconstitutional, lame-duck power grab from incoming Democratic officeholders or voters.
The House Elections and Ethics Committee passed the bill 6-3 along party lines on a day when hundreds of liberal activists again demonstrated at the Capitol. The new legislation could clear the Republican-led House in a lengthy session that was expected to drag beyond midnight into early Thursday, before moving to the GOP-controlled Senate next week.
Republican lawmakers are trying to make it harder to mount ballot drives after voters last month legalized marijuana for recreational use, overhauled the process of redrawing district lines that the GOP dominated in recent decades and expanded voting options.
It is seen as the newest attempt to diminish Democrats’ influence before they come into power in Michigan and Wisconsin, which have gained national attention and have sparked protests in both states.
The bill to tighten requirements for ballot initiatives drew opposition from across the political spectrum.
“I think this bill is remarkably undemocratic,” said Erica Peresman, a volunteer from the Detroit suburb of Birmingham who helped collect signatures for the initiative to expand voting options.
“It’s about putting up obstacles on top of the very significant signature requirement and petition rules that already exist to make it more expensive, more difficult and more burdensome for citizens like me to participate in the democratic process,” she said.
The legislation would affect ballot committees initiating constitutional amendments, bills and referendums by capping the number of signatures that could come from an individual congressional district at 10 percent. There is no geographic threshold currently, and the measure could dilute the ability to circulate petitions primarily in more heavily populated, likely Democratic-leaning areas. Petition circulators also would have to file an affidavit with the state saying if they are a paid or volunteer signature gatherer.
The bill was backed by business groups that said it would prevent fraud, better inform voters and require widespread support for statewide ballot proposals often funded by out-of-state interests. It was opposed by Democrats and organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees labor union and Right to Life of Michigan.
The 10 percent threshold would be an “administrative nightmare,” said Genevieve Marnon, legislative director for the anti-abortion group, which has successfully organized several ballot initiatives over the years.
“But more importantly I don’t know that our volunteers at Right to Life of Michigan really want all of their names and addresses listed on a searchable database with the secretary of state,” she said. “I think it’s going to deter a whole lot of people from volunteering to do this.”
ACLU voting rights strategist Sharon Dolente said similar geographic distribution rules have been struck down by courts. Michigan, she said, has “wide variation” in the number of registered voters in each congressional district, a difference of more than 100,000 between the top and bottom.
But John Bursch, a lawyer speaking on behalf of a number of business organizations, said 16 other states have similar requirements, including four that specify signature limits by congressional district.
“I’m confident that if Florida could get this right that Michigan could get it right, too,” he said.
The bill sponsor, Republican Rep. James Lower of Cedar Lake, said the state’s initiative petition law is in “desperate need of updating” and Michigan must “get more in the times with 2018.”
The committee vote came a week after GOP legislators maneuvered to significantly scale back minimum wage and paid sick time laws that began as ballot initiatives. At the behest of the business lobby, the Legislature preemptively adopted the wage and leave measures before the election, rather than let them go to a public vote, so it would be easier to change them after — an unprecedented strategy that is sure to spark lawsuits if Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signs the bills. GOP lawmakers also have advanced bills that would strip or dilute the authority of Democrats taking over the secretary of state, attorney general and governor offices — though it was uncertain if they would win final approval before legislators adjourn next week.
Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker is likely to sign legislation trimming the power of his successor after making a few, unspecified partial vetoes. The bills will be automatically delivered to him on Dec. 20 if he does not call for them sooner, and once he has them Walker has six days to take action.
Regardless of whether the latest Michigan measure is enacted into law, it already will be tougher to qualify measures for the ballot in 2020 and 2022 because of high turnout for November’s midterm election. The minimum number of valid signatures needed in Michigan is tied to the number of votes for governor. A group pushing a constitutional amendment will now need roughly 425,000 signatures — the most ever — and well above the 315,000 that were required in 2016 and 2018.