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Law limiting Michigan ballot drives mostly unconstitutional, court rules

ballot box

LANSING –  A state appeals court on Monday struck down major portions of a law that would have made it more difficult for citizens to launch ballot initiatives in Michigan. 

The law, passed by Republicans during the 2018 lame-duck session of the Legislature, imposed a 15 percent limit on the number of signatures ballot petitioners could gather from any one of Michigan’s 14 congressional districts. It also required petitioners to sign affidavits indicating whether they’re paid or volunteer and display that designation on petitions.

The court struck down all three requirements, ruling they impose unconstitutional burdens on those signing and circulating ballot initiatives. The ruling largely affirmed a lower court’s decision from September.

“Setting a 15 percent geographic limitation serves to take power out of the hands of the people,” wrote Judge Deborah Servitto in the opinion joined by Michael Gadola. “This places the cart before the horse and unduly burdens the initiative and petition process.”

The requirement that circulators sign an affidavit indicating whether they’re paid or volunteer impose a “significant burden” on voters’ First Amendment right to political speech, Servitto wrote, adding “no real governmental interest has been asserted” about the necessity of the rule. 

“The circulators’ right to be free of potential ‘heat of the moment’ harassment and to protect their privacy regarding their status as either a paid circulator or a volunteer, as well as the sponsors’ right to have circulators engage in discourse with voters, outweigh the state’s generally stated interests in transparency and accountability,” Servitto wrote. 

“The Legislature has simply not demonstrated that [the law,] PA 608’s check-box requirement is necessary to serve its vaguely-asserted interests.”

Other elements of the law, such as a requirement that the Board of State Canvassers decide whether a ballot initiative has met its signature requirements at least 100 days before the election, can remain, the court said. 

Attorney General Dana Nessel last year determined most elements of the law were unconstitutional, prompting the Republican-led Legislature to sue Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who like Nessel is a Democrat. The League of Women voters also challenged the law’s constitutionality and the two cases were consolidated. 

The state House and Senate could appeal to the state Supreme Court. Aides for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield told Bridge via email they are “reviewing the ruling and considering options.” 

Legislative leaders have maintained that the law is constitutional and should be implemented.

Secretary of State spokesman Jake Rollow said the office will review the ruling with legal counsel “before determining any next steps.” 

Rep. James Lower, R-Greenville, sponsored the bill. At the time, he argued it would require petitioners to gather support from rural and suburban areas in addition to Michigan’s urban centers and to bring more transparency to the ballot initiative process.

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