LGBT rights group sues Michigan over ballot rules, citing coronavirus

Canvassers 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. (Bridge file photo)

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.

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.”

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Comments

Kevin Grand
Tue, 05/26/2020 - 3:44pm

So, the LGBT crowd is ticked off that a democrat squashed their petition drive?

Hopefully, they'll remember that during the next election.

Matt
Tue, 05/26/2020 - 6:53pm

So you expect Dana Nessell to mount a rigorous defense?

Kevin Grand
Thu, 05/28/2020 - 7:01am

With her wife is involved in that campaign, she'll do everything she can (quietly and below the radar), to help move it forward.

Bill
Wed, 05/27/2020 - 11:24am

I'm curious to know, would you rather Whitmer not have shut down the state? There's a good chance you could have caught this thing and died like the 5000+ other people in the state.

Kevin Grand
Thu, 05/28/2020 - 8:51pm

And there is a better chance that I'll win the lottery. What's your point?

Fear mongering doesn't suit you very well, Bill.

Shrew Tamer
Tue, 05/26/2020 - 4:10pm

The precedent has already been set in previous cases for the politicians as mentioned in the article: "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."
So let's just do it now for "we the people" too.

Lauren H
Wed, 05/27/2020 - 10:03am

It will be interesting to see how our attorney general handles this. Her partner is the head of Fair and Equal Michigan.

Dana's dad
Thu, 05/28/2020 - 10:20am

She'll probably launch a strongly worded twitter campaign, perhaps with a hash tag or 2, followed by some unprofessional comments from her official and personal accounts. Maybe a press release with that same head shot highlighting her wrinkled forehead.

Anonymous
Thu, 05/28/2020 - 10:21am

Don't they know we're in a GLOBAL PANDEMIC? no time for selfishness, should stay indoors and be prepared to sacrifice personal liberties for the SURVIVAL OF THE HUMAN RACE!!!