Michigan's attorney general said Wednesday that a Republican-enacted law making it harder to put proposals on the statewide ballot is unconstitutional, declaring that lawmakers had no authority to impose a geographic limit a circulating petitions.
Democrat Dana Nessel's opinion binds state officials unless it is reversed by a court. A legal fight is expected soon, because groups want clarity before launching ballot drives this summer.
The law was enacted in December's postelection "lame duck" session, and followed an unprecedented maneuver by GOP lawmakers and then-Gov. Rick Snyder to weaken minimum wage increases and paid sick time requirements that began as ballot initiatives. The law also came a month after voters passed three Democratic-backed proposals to legalize marijuana for recreational use, curtail the gerrymandering of congressional and legislative districts, and expand voting options.
The law imposes a geographic requirement on groups trying to gather hundreds of thousands of voter signatures to qualify for the ballot. No more than 15% of signatures can come from any one of Michigan's 14 congressional districts, a restriction that prevents ballot committees from solely targeting the most heavily populated, more Democratic urban areas.
Nessel wrote that the "plain language" of the state constitution cannot be interpreted to authorize the 15% limitation or any distribution component, adding that the requirement "denies many registered electors the right to have their signatures counted."
Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson sought the opinion in January.
"Based on our review, this new law clearly violates the Constitution on several — but not all — fronts," Nessel said in a statement. "With these issues resolved, Secretary Benson and her team can now go forward in the work they need to do in managing Michigan's election process."
The law's sponsor, Republican Rep. Jim Lower of Greenville, has said it is designed to ensure voters have more input on ballot proposals before they go to a vote, since many measures are funded by out-of-state interests.
Nessel said others parts of the law are unconstitutional, too, such as a requirement that each petition indicate whether a circulator is paid or a volunteer. Other provisions, like one invalidating all signatures on a petition sheet circulated by someone who has provided false or fraudulent information, do withstand constitutional scrutiny, she said.