Fair And Equal Michigan Sues State To Change Signature Requirements During Pandemic

May 29, 2020

As ballot measure initiatives across the country fizzled out during the coronavirus pandemic Fair and Equal Michigan pivoted to gathering electronic signatures.

But, when Wednesday’s deadline came to turn in signatures to be vetted for a place on Novembers’ ballot, the gay-rights campaign fighting for non-discrimination protections fell more than 162,000 signatures short.

Now, along with two Democrat state lawmakers, the campaign is suing the Michigan Secretary of State, Board of Canvassers, and Director of Elections to forestall the end of their campaign.

The coronavirus outbreak has catastrophically damaged ballot initiatives abilities to collect signatures in public spaces and at large public gatherings while the country has been shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Steven Liedel is an attorney representing Fair and Equal Michigan in their case at the Michigan Court of Claims. He said, the campaign went from 600 volunteers, with 200 people collecting roughly 6,000 signatures a day, pre-pandemic to just a trickle of signatures when the campaign shifted to collecting signatures via mail before pivoting to electronic signatures.

“It’s not the same as the face to face contact that’s authorized under the constitution. Public gatherings are really the most effective way to gather signatures still in terms of amount and the cost associated with it still,” said Liedel.

According to reporting from Bridge Magazine, campaign organizers spent more than $131,000 attempting to pivot to electronic signatures after Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order authorizing electronic signature collection during the stay-at-home order. But the hefty price tag didn’t come with a payoff—netting the campaign just over 12,000 completions of the online form.

Now, the case in the court of claims is suing election officials asking to decrease the number of signatures needed (proportional to roughly when they were forced to stop collecting because of the pandemic), or extend the 180-day period for collecting signatures to extend to when restrictions are lifted and regular signature collection methods can be used again.

More than 340,000 signatures are required to get onto the ballot in November, but the campaign only turned in 177,865 signatures.

Liedel says the campaign is optimistic because of an earlier federal court ruling in which a district court judge ruled in favor of a Republican congressional hopeful Eric Esshaki in the 11th district who argued the stay-at-home order infringed on his ability to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot. The ruling also impacted two judicial candidates.

The state was forced to push the deadline back and lower the signature threshold. Liedel says Esshaki’s lawsuit paved the way.

“All of this is really unprecedented. You know we’ve not had a pandemic with this broad of an impact, for this long of a period of time that we’ve dealt with. And many of our laws don’t participate or recognize that,” said Liedel.

The district court ruling does not apply to Fair and Equal Michigan since the initiative process is governed by the state constitution.

On Wednesday, the Judge Cynthia Stephens ordered the deadline for signatures moved to June 3rd, so she could hear the case on Tuesday. The court has the authority to unilaterally extend the deadline, but an extension of the signature deadline would have to come from the Governor via executive order, or action from the state legislature.