It may be another crowded line-up this November.
A new ballot question committee has filed with the state to petition for an initiated law to raise the minimum wage in Michigan. The Raise Michigan ballot committee announced today their intent to explore the prospect of having the question put to voters this fall. As an initiated law, the group would need to gather valid signatures equal to 8 percent of voters from the most recent gubernatorial election, which comes to over 258,000 signers. Of course, they will need many more than that number to survive validation — a process accomplished by the state sampling a portion of the petitions to arrive at an estimated number of invalid signatures to be disqualified.
If successful, the ballot initiative will join a number of other questions to be decided by voters in 2014. The year is shaping-up to look a lot like 2012, where Michigan decided 6 proposals.
One effort has already won a place on the ballot – a referendum on Public Act 520. Known as the original wolf hunt law, GOP legislators made an end-run around the petition process meant to repeal it, with a new law transferring the authority from the legislature to the Natural Resources Commission. The move was viewed as another underhanded scenario somewhat similar to what the GOP did with the emergency manager law — only this time they didn’t even wait for a popular vote to occur.
To make it a GOP hat trick, voters were also deprived of the privilege of having a voice on the ballot initiative to require a special rider health insurance policy for abortions. Lawmakers approved the initiated “rape insurance” law last December, thereby keeping it off the ballot.
Other ballot questions are in various stages of progress. Among them is a petition drive to amend the constitution to allow voter referendums for the repeal of laws that have appropriations attached to them. Current law protects bills with appropriations from the referendum process, a loophole that unscrupulous lawmakers like to exploit.
Also in the works, is an initiated law to ban fracking in Michigan, and two dueling ballot questions about wolf hunting. One to repeal the end-run law mentioned above, which transferred decision-making authority to the Natural Resources Commission, and the other, a petition to amend the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act to allow continued wolf hunting in the state. Since the latter is an initiated law, not a referendum, the legislature could potentially act on it as they did the “rape insurance” law, and keep it off the ballot — that is, only if enough signatures are gathered in time for the November election. Here’s where it gets tricky though, if lawmakers do that, it would occur in this calendar year, meaning a referendum to repeal it would have to be completed by March of 2015 — a Herculean feat. Article 2, Section 9 of the 1963 Michigan Constitution outlines the timeframe:
The power of referendum does not extend to acts making appropriations for state institutions or to meet deficiencies in state funds and must be invoked in the manner prescribed by law within 90 days following the final adjournment of the legislative session at which the law was enacted. To invoke the initiative or referendum, petitions signed by a number of registered electors, not less than eight percent for initiative and five percent for referendum of the total vote cast for all candidates for governor at the last preceding general election at which a governor was elected shall be required.
Which brings us to a potential remedy. Again, like the “rape insurance” law, proponents for repeal could launch an initiated law petition drive (not a referendum) to over-write the new law, with perhaps an amendment to exclude wolves.
Confused yet? There’s more.
In the event both of the most recent wolf hunt ballot proposals, pro and con, enjoy success in achieving a 2014 ballot placement, and each also earn an electoral thumbs-up, the constitution provides for that outcome too:
If two or more measures approved by the electors at the same election conflict, that receiving the highest affirmative vote shall prevail.
There’s plenty to be decided in November.
Back in 2012, there was talk about “proposal fatigue”, and sure some voters were irritated, but not necessarily due to the number of ballot questions — more so by the confusion surrounding them. The dark money inundating media with issue ads was largely behind the ill-will of voters.
Earlier this month, Eric Lupher, Director of Local Affairs at the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, put together a report, with an accompanying webinar, on the topic of proposals. Reform of Michigan’s Ballot Question Process addresses numerous issues and problems with this special form of direct democracy.
Lupher explains that the original intent of the Michigan ballot question process was to level the playing field. The consensus had been that banks were controlling the legislature. But now, we find those monied-interests are hijacking the ballot proposal system itself for their own goals in an attempt to bypass the legislature.
While it may seem like there are more proposals in every election, in reality they haven’t increased. The average, per general election, is two, yet 1978 saw 11, 1968 and 1972 had 8, and 1994,1996, and 2002 had 6 — as did 2012. The CRC report found that Michigan is about average by every measure when it comes to this form of direct democracy.
However, they still offered specific areas in need of improvement.
The greatest concern is that of ensuring an informed electorate. Ultimately it remains the responsibility of the voters to educate themselves, but with a dearth of information, and the blinding barrage of issue ads, voter confusion sets-in. Lupher put it this way:
“The people have reserved to themselves these tools of direct democracy, and in doing so they bear some responsibility for understanding what they are doing.”
To that end, the CRC report makes the following suggestions for reform:
- The state government should create voter guides, to be made available on a website and to include: summaries, fiscal notes, and statements from proponents and opponents. Ballotpedia currently ranks Michigan as “very poor” in providing its electorate with information.
- “Front-load” the process to avoid political challenges and litigation. The state should, at the beginning of the proposal process, provide a clear method for application to circulate a petition through a review of the substance of proposals, the preparation of petitions, and the employment of the Legislative Service Bureau to insure the language of the petition is in alignment with the laws it impacts. These things should be required before even one signature is collected.
- Campaign and electioneering transparency. This policy reform will be the hardest to sell with lawmakers. The CRC calls for a mechanism to ensure truthfulness in ads — particularly those issue ads designed to mislead, along with the disclosure of who is behind the proposal. Additionally, the report recommends that the Michigan Department of State be given legal authority to oversee the process by making ballot questions subject to Sec. 26 of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act — meaning ballot question committees will have to report the names of individual contributors, along with expenditures, to the state, just as candidates for office are required to do.
Those all sound like admirable goals, but the unfortunate truth is that this current GOP-led Michigan legislature will likely be motivated to lessen transparency and further obscure voter knowledge. While Lupher’s telling of the history may be correct, he failed to mention that lawmakers really don’t care that monied-interests are abusing the ballot proposal process. As long as our elected officials continue to receive hefty campaign contributions from those gaming the system, direct democracy, and genuine grassroots initiatives will suffer.
Related: A Ballot Proposal Too Far