Bill placing new rules on Michigan ballot initiatives advances over opposition

Population density of congressional districts

By law, congressional districts contain roughly the same number of voters – about 711,000 apiece. But districts are geographically far larger in rural areas than metropolitan ones. A bill to require citizen-backed initiatives to collect no more than 15 percent of signatures from any of Michigan’s 14 congressional districts, then, is intended to require signature-gatherers to travel throughout the state. The vast 1st Congressional District in Northern Michigan has just 29 people per square mile, compared to the 9th Congressional District in Metro Detroit with nearly 4,000 people per mile. Click on the districts to see how many people per square mile live there


A Republican-sponsored bill that would place added requirements on the signature gathering process for statewide citizens initiatives passed to the House floor Wednesday, despite impassioned opposition from groups as disparate as Right to Life of Michigan and the Michigan ACLU.

Opponents said the legislation is unconstitutional and would create untenable burdens for the Secretary of State’s office. Proponents said it would bring transparency and accountability to a process rife with out-of-state moneyed interests.  

It will be up for a vote on the House floor Wednesday afternoon. If it passes, it will move through the Senate before being presented to Gov. Rick Snyder.

The bill follows a November election in which three ballot initiatives widely supported by progressive groups ‒ legalizing marijuana, changing the state’s redistricting system and making it easier to vote ‒ were approved by Michigan voters. Two others ‒ to increase the minimum wage and require sick-leave protections for workers ‒ were preemptively passed by the Republican-led Legislature in September then gutted during the current lame-duck session.  

The legislation, introduced by Rep. James Lower, R-Cedar Lake, would create new requirements for the process by which citizen initiatives get approved for the ballot. It passed out of the House Elections and Ethics committee 6-3 along party lines Wednesday morning, with Republicans approving the bill and Democrats voting against it.

House Bill 6595 would:

  • Place a cap on total signatures gathered from a single congressional district to 10 percent. If Michigan, which currently has 14 congressional districts, loses districts after the bill takes effect, that would raise to 15 percent.
  • Require petitions to indicate whether the person collecting the signature is paid or a volunteer. In most cases, organizations pushing ballot initiatives hire professional firms to collect signatures within the time frame allowed under state law.  
  • Require signature gatherers to file a signed affidavit with the Secretary of State indicating whether they are paid or a volunteer, and make all signatures gathered by someone who has not signed an affidavit invalid.
  • Invalidate any signatures gathered by a circulator who has been found to provide “fraudulent information,” including an incorrect address, on that petition.
  • Require the Board of State Canvassers to determine whether an initiative can be on the ballot by July 1. The current deadline is 100 days before the election, which is typically in late July. Lower said the change will give the Secretary of State more time to vet issues that could arise from the other requirements.

Lower told Bridge the idea for the bill sprung from knocking doors and talking with constituents in Montcalm and Gratiot counties during his re-election campaign this year.

“I was surprised how many of them didn’t realize that (the ballot initiatives) were paid for by out of state millionaires and billionaires,” Lower said. “There wasn’t really any transparency on that, people just thought it was a citizen-led effort and that’s just what it was.”

There were eight citizens initiatives in 2018. The largest funders for all but two — to repeal the state’s prevailing wage law and to switch to a part-time legislature — were from out-of-state. However, Voters Not Politicians (the group behind Proposal 2), gathered all of its signatures with volunteer circulators.

Lower added that he chose to include the 10 percent requirement to ensure that initiatives that make the ballot reflect the desires of the whole state.

“I represent a rural part of the state. Under the current law you can get all of the signatures from southeast Michigan and I feel like we need more buy in from (rural voters) if they’re going to be on the ballot, especially with the people who have been here talking to us saying that it represents the will of the people,” he said, referring to liberal protestors who have voiced their frustrations during lame duck about Republican efforts to regulate the ballot measures.

Chris Thomas, the former Michigan Elections Director who has served under governors and secretaries of state of both parties, said the bill — and particularly the 10 percent requirement — “is so facially unconstitutional it’s hard to believe.”

The bill would deny some voters the constitutional right to sign petitions based on the number of people in their district who signed before them or whether the circulator registered with the state, he said. The provisions would also force the Board of State Canvassers and Supreme Court to resolve complicated legal questions within a tight time frame, which could make it nearly impossible to get an issue on the ballot.

“It’s a Catch-22 to disenfranchise voters, to make the petition process unworkable and to create a three ring circus during the canvass process that could never happen in time,” he said.

Rep. Jeremy Moss, D-Livonia, questioned whether the Secretary of State will have the resources to enforce the 10 percent rule, as the current process only requires the state to check a representative sample of signatures, which may all be from the same county or Congressional district.

“You’re setting up the Secretary of State to do something that’s ungovernable, especially if we set them up without more resources,” he said.

Mike Batterbee, the Secretary of State’s director of government affairs said the agency does not have an opinion on the bill, but that counting ballots to ensure they adhere to the 10 percent threshold “does pose a bit of a problem.” He said a minimum threshold “would be more workable.”

Moss introduced a substitute in committee that would have changed the requirements from a 10 percent maximum to a three percent minimum. It failed.

The 10 percent requirement “gives disproportionate weight to rural areas where it’s much harder to get signatures because of a lack of people and a lack of crowds in gathering places,” said Richard Czuba, a pollster for Lansing-based Glengariff Group.

Red Michigan

Democrats and Republicans split 7-7 in the congressional district in 2018, the first time in years that Republicans did not dominate. Geographically, much of the state is in areas that lean Republican. A bill in the Legislature would require citizen-backed initiatives to collect no more than 15 percent of signatures from any of Michigan’s 14 congressional districts. Click on a district to see vote breakdowns in November.

However, proponents of shifting the requirement from a maximum to a minimum argued in committee that the maximum would not force geographic diversity because there are at least seven Congressional districts in the Detroit area alone; it would be possible to pass ballot initiatives based solely on voters in the lower half of the mitten.

John Bursch, the former Michigan Solicitor General, spoke on behalf of the West Michigan Policy Forum and other business groups, including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, supporting the bill.

“The proposal as it’s currently written is the safest” constitutionally and mirrors other states’ requirements, he said, adding that setting a floor of support in each district could unconstitutionally raise the number of signatures required by the constitution.

Organizers who have been involved with gathering petition signatures for several different organizations spoke against the bill.

Lowers’ legislation would cause “an administrative nightmare” and would discourage volunteers from being involved, said Genevieve Marnon, legislative director for Right to Life of Michigan, which has organized several successful citizens petitions with volunteer circulators. During the 2018 election, academics and politicos often said Right to Life is the only predecessor to Voters Not Politicians’ all-volunteer effort in recent state history.

Organizers behind proposals to guarantee paid sick leave and raise the minimum wage also told Bridge they oppose the legislation. Josh Hovey, spokesman for the successful campaign to legalize adult-use marijuana, said this legislation would have made it “extremely difficult… and extremely costly” for their proposal to make the ballot.

A number of other Democratic-sponsored bills that would also add restrictions to the signature gathering process have been introduced and will likely be considered in committee Wednesday afternoon, said Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, chair of the committee and co-sponsor on the bill. The committee hearing brought up “really compelling reason(s)” to improve Lower’s bill and he’s “open to changes,” he said, but in the meantime he would advocate to his House colleagues to support it.

Bridge staff reporter Mike Wilkinson contributed

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Lori L McDiarmid
Wed, 12/12/2018 - 5:47pm

One signature, one vote, one person. It should not matter where you live. Proposals are just that...proposals. Everybody still gets an equal say in the end about whether they pass. There is no logical argument in making it more difficult to get proposals on the ballot and we wouldn't have to resort to them in the first place if politicians were LISTENING to their voters.

Nancy Rodda
Thu, 12/13/2018 - 10:02am

I totally agree. People in rural areas still are able to vote on a proposal. To limit how many signatures from each district is simply a way to make it harder for the people to change government. And by change I mean creating a fair playing field to force them to listen to us and to work together.
Also, the one politician said that his constituents didn't know that it was outside money funding proposals .EXCEPT that the two that changed how government is run ( Prop 2 and 3) were not.