LANSING — A gay rights group seeking to add non-discrimination protections to Michigan law is suing the state, alleging COVID-19 social distancing restrictions made it “impossible” to collect enough petition signatures to qualify for the November ballot.
In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, attorneys for Fair and Equal Michigan asked the Michigan Court of Claims to either reduce the state’s signature requirement or waive a traditional 180-day circulation window.
The committee on Tuesday will submit to the state 177,865 signatures, including 135,402 projected to be valid, far short of the 340,042 signatures it would need to make the ballot.
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Fair and Equal Michigan had already collected nearly 134,000 of those signatures by mid-March, when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer began closing businesses and ordered residents to stay home when possible to avoid spreading the deadly coronavirus, according to the complaint.
Organizers are asking the Michigan Court of Claims to prohibit the state from enforcing “unreasonable deadlines and petition signature thresholds that are now impossible to compel with in light of the COVID-19 pandemic,” arguing those rules infringe upon their constitutional right to petition the government.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Fair and Equal Michigan, along with state Sen. Adam Hollier of Detroit and Rep. Mari Manoogian of Birmingham, both Democrats. The complaint names Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, Elections Director Jonathan Brater and the Board of State Canvassers.
By enforcing traditional signature requirements during the pandemic, Benson and Brater have “restrained plaintiffs and all Michigan citizens from exercising their constitutional rights to free speech, to initiate legislation, and to petition the government,” said attorneys Steven Liedel and Gary Gordon, who are representing the ballot committee.
Benson’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Michigan recently eased ballot access requirements for congressional and judicial candidates, halving the signature threshold and extending a deadline after a federal judge said enforcing traditional rules amid the pandemic amounted to a “severe” and unconstitutional burden on citizens seeking public office.
While at least two other ballot committees ended petition drives amid the pandemic, Fair and Equal Michigan announced April 13 that it would attempt to collect signatures electronically, a move that would have already tested the boundaries of state election law.
But attorneys for the group said that effort proved expensive and relatively unproductive. Organizers spent more than $131,000 on the electronic initiative but said only 12,084 people completed the online form.
The lawsuit asks the Michigan Court of Claims to lower its 340,042 signature requirement for initiated legislation to just 127,518 signatures, which the group says is proportional to the length of time it was able to collect signatures in person.
Alternatively, Fair and Equal Michigan wants the court to expand the 180-day window in which signatures can typically be collected in order to allow for more circulation as Whitmer eases COVID-19 restrictions.
The initiative, if sent to the statewide ballot and approved by voters, would expand the definition of “sex” in the Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976 to include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity or expression,” guaranteeing safeguards in housing, public accommodation and employment.
“We spent 37 years trying to right this wrong, and today we stand together determined to have … our voices heard,” said campaign co-chair Trevor Thomas. “Especially in a time of great difficulty, such as our public health crisis, it is now when our constitutional rights must be upheld.”