A Calculated Attack in Progress
“It was obvious that House Republicans brought this bill up this week to undermine the petitions that are being gathered across the State of Michigan on a number of initiatives. They’re undermining the rights of those citizens.” — Michigan House Democratic Floor Leader, Rep. Sam Singh, speaking last month against yet another GOP attack on citizen-initiated petitions.
The people’s right to petition in Michigan is considered so sacrosanct that it’s been codified into the state’s constitution. Yet, unintended loopholes in that broadly worded document are allowing opportunistic lawmakers numerous means to manipulate, if not entirely scuttle the basic rights of their citizenry. And under recent Republican dominance, surreptitious obstructionism has now become the norm. GOP lawmakers in the Great Lakes State routinely go the extra mile just to punish voting constituents for attempting to exercise their core democratic rights at the ballot box.
Michigan’s GOP Rap Sheet
Just during the Snyder years, GOP offenses include (but are not limited to):
- When voters opted to oust Republican Representative Paul Scott in 2011 over his anti-union, anti-teacher leadership of the House Education Committee, the legislature retaliated against constituents by rigging recall rules to make the process nearly impossible in the future.
- Within months, these same lawmakers reinstated the emergency manager law just days after its repeal by popular vote — a law which in itself is a grave affront to democracy.
- Michigan’s minimum wage petition initiative was short-circuited by GOP machinations, never reaching the voters for approval.
- There was an endless barrage of legislative skullduggery employed to bypass popular support for the petition to protect Michigan’s threatened wolf population.
- Women in particular remember when a largely male cadre of lawmakers fast-tracked the “rape insurance” law, requiring women to purchase a special policy to cover abortion, even in the case of rape — a feat accomplished through another abuse of the petition process which prevented voters from having their say.
- Most recently, by changing the signature-gathering rules mid-stream, they circumvented ongoing petition drives, including one to put on the ballot the question of legalizing pot.
Petitioning is Hard Work
Petitioning is already an arduous undertaking, fraught with legal challenges and legislative chicanery. Yet GOP lawmakers remain hell-bent on rendering the endeavour humanly impossible. I was recently reminded of how very difficult the process can be, even in its simplest form, when asked to assist a group in a neighboring municipality with a local ballot initiative for their city. Educating them on the process brought back stressful memories of my participation in the 2011-12 petition drive and referendum election to repeal Snyder’s first version of the emergency manager law — a citizen effort rendered moot by an unconstitutional GOP override.
And now we have Senate Bill 776, enacted last month as Public Act 142, designed to prohibitively limit the window for gathering signatures to 180 days — a standard which had been informally followed in the past, but was not codified into law, nor cited in the state’s constitution. MI Legalize, the group collecting signatures on the marijuana question, asked the Board of State Canvassers to approve an expedited computerized process for validating otherwise “stale-dated” signatures, older than 180 days — which had been the long-standing practice until Republicans stepped-in. Yes, GOP lawmakers sprung into action to put the kibosh on the request, thus killing the citizen-initiated effort altogether, or not… MI Legalize has since filed suit in the Michigan Court of Claims, and requested a fast-track decision, hoping to recapture this election cycle. It’s worth noting that the courts, although at times political animals themselves, tend to take a stronger stand on the separation and balance of powers than we find in their legislative and executive counterparts, even here in Michigan.
Hard Work and Tons of Money
Executing a successful statewide ballot drive requires a serious bankroll — with hiring lawyers, printing petitions, training signature-gathers (paid or not), contracting support firms, all in addition to the day-to-day costs of running the campaign and building a coalition. This grassroots apparatus demands a whole lotta jack. It’s not a casual hobby for the armchair activist.
The Michigan Campaign Finance Network reports that, over the past year and a half, 11 ballot question committees have raised $6.4 million, spending $3.5 million thus far, and of that amount, $2.9 million on the petitioning process alone. Most of the money went to professional signature-gathering companies, with nearly half of that going to one firm, Silver Bullet, in an effort to repeal the state’s prevailing wage law. MCFN prognosticates that none of the 11 questions will be on the ballot this November — the signature requirement bar is set too high, and the time-frame is too narrow.
Ballot proposals in Michigan consist of referendums, initiated laws, and constitutional amendments, with increasingly higher signature requirements in that order — all based on a percentage of the number of ballots cast in the most recent gubernatorial election.
It’s clearly a topic on the minds of lawmakers. Other pending legislative items that could impact ballot proposals in the state include:
Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. (D-23) introduced legislation late last fall designed to regulate and provide penalties for false statements made by petition gatherers on ballot questions and recall attempts. The bill would make it a misdemeanor for someone who “intentionally makes a false statement or misrepresentation concerning the contents” of a petition.
Late last year, Rep. Jim Townsend (D-26) offered a House Joint Resolution, with strong partisan support, to amend Article II, Sec. 9 of the Michigan Constitution to close what’s known as the appropriations loophole — a provision which renders laws referendum-proof if a spending package is attached. GOP lawmakers have a storied history of abusing this clause when they know a majority of voters disagree with a piece of their legislation.
Both of these proposals predictably remain in committee.