Law limiting Michigan ballot drives mostly unconstitutional, court rules

ballot box

The law would have imposed a 15 percent limit on the number of signatures ballot petitioners could gather from any one congressional district and other restrictions. (Shutterstock image)

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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Wed, 01/29/2020 - 8:26am

Great news! Kudos to our judicial branch for keeping Republicans in check!

Wed, 01/29/2020 - 8:30am

Yep! The traitor republicans have been taking the right away from the people for years!!!! Like the frog in boiling water

John Q. Public
Wed, 01/29/2020 - 10:41am

It's not like it was a tough call. I remember multiple readers at this very site commenting that the law was probably unconstitutional when the bill was first introduced. It was apparent on its face to anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the application of "one man, one vote" over the past sixty years.

A welcomed article in late October would be a compilation of laws sponsored by legislators seeking re-election which were subsequently ruled to be unconstitutional. Citizens ought to know which lawmakers don't understand--or worse, ignore--the requirements of the constitution they swore to uphold.

Wed, 01/29/2020 - 10:51am

Technology is a double edged sword. On one side, it gives us a method to hear instantly what is going on and demand instant gratification and change. On the other side, it is a disruptor of an orderly government. Our Federal, State, and Local founding documents have, with input or votes from the citizens, laid out this process which has served our country well for over two centuries.

Now it seems that when people are offended, and it seems everyone is offended by something, they grab computer or phone and demand instant change. Folks, we are not England or Canada where the government can change almost overnight. Don't like the mayor, or Congressperson, or even your healthcare, we need to learn to live with it until that appointed time when we all get to vote and change in an orderly fashion. And if you're dissatisfied with the person you voted into office, just maybe someone didn't do their homework.

wilfred krumenaker
Wed, 01/29/2020 - 12:14pm

Why does the republicans want this........simple, like the gerrymandering of districts...they want to control the outcome of elections. No where do they care about "the voters", it is all about the "party"! Lincoln would be so proud of the g,o.p. and their anti-democracy stand !

Wed, 01/29/2020 - 4:22pm

Typical court shopping. Plaintiffs in these situation always pick courts they feel most likely sympathetic to their claims and therefor decesions mean nothing until the State Supreme Court gets it. Don't get excited yet.

middle of the mit
Wed, 01/29/2020 - 10:53pm

Could this be the courts telling Republicans that the minority pushing it's rights over the voters is tyranny of the minority?

Isn't that what tyranny has always been about? The rule of the wealthy over the populace? Not even the Bible will disagree. Israel was warned about how the wealthy rulers were treating the least of these.

And how is our country any different? The wealthy, no matter how much they deem their services are worth, are NOT the reason for price increases, even though their prices are the only ones that EXCEED the inflation rate as described by their proponents that refuse to take into the inflation rate housing, food, utilities and everyday living items into the inflation rate. Look it up. Don't trust me. Find out for yourselves.

Also, isn't this how modern Republicans circumvent voter initiatives and then make the law the way they want it to be? There was an article just a little while back that talked about one person from out of state that held almost a dozen marijuana licenses for grow and/or dispensaries. Didn't the Republicans write the bill that they stole from the people and regulate and put the price on a license to grow to $66,000.00 per year? And they said it was so that only "serious players could get in the game?"

Yeah! That happened!

And now they want to take a ballot proposal for abortion and refuse the voters the ability to vote on it and just pass it with 450,000 signatures out of a population of almost 10,000,000. That is what? 4.5% of the populace?

Minority rule IS True Tyranny!

Sat, 02/01/2020 - 4:38pm

The law that enacted these restrictions on petitions is PA 608. It was enacted in a lame duck session in the middle of the night with no prior hearings and no debate on the floor, like pretty much all lame duck legislation. This lame duck session was a month after the November election when voters overwhelmingly supported the anti-gerrymandering ballot measure. The Republican controlled legislature wanted to make it more difficult for voters to override their corruption and passed PA 608.

PA 608 has many flaws, but the worst was capping the percentage of signers to 15% in a State House district. By doing this, the Republican legislature and Republican governor who signed this bill effectively voided the petition signatures of some voters in a district if the total signers in the district were more than 15% of all statewide signatures on the petition.

Lame duck legislature sessions should be prohibited. We need a petition for that.

A problem with this current court decision is that it's an Appeals Court decision. Until the Michigan Supreme Court weighs in on this decision, this is not a done deal.

Sun, 02/02/2020 - 8:07am

I have been asked to sign petitions in the past after getting a very inaccurate and misleading description of what it was about. I think spreading the signatures around to a wider area reflects a better assessment of legitimacy.

Paul Jordan
Sun, 02/02/2020 - 4:29pm

The law that the Republicans passed clearly violates the principle of "one person one vote". It would effectively make the signatures of voters in urban counties less powerful than those in less populous areas.

Once again, the Republicans are clearly demonstrating their distrust of democracy and their preference for minority rule.

Tonya Crittenden
Sun, 02/09/2020 - 10:46pm

Of course, most of the money goes to Detroit. That's where the votes to elect democrats are located.