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Bridge Michigan
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Michigan groups miss first deadline to tighten voting laws, limit health orders

petition drive
A long winter and shortage of signature-gathering firms have slowed efforts on ballot initiatives that would tighten voting laws and limit state government pandemic powers. (Shutterstock)

LANSING  — Fast-tracked Republican efforts to tighten voting laws and limit state government pandemic powers have hit a speed bump in Michigan.

Organizers with the Secure MI Vote and Unlock Michigan 2 petitions drives have missed an initial 180-day window to submit the 340,047 valid voter signatures needed to advance the initiatives to the GOP-led Legislature and bypass a veto by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

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Petitioners have until June 1 to file signatures. But because Michigan law limits collections to 180 days, by continuing to circulate petitions this spring, both GOP groups must toss out initial signatures they began gathering in October. 

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A long Michigan winter limited signature collection opportunities, as did high demand for circulators given the flood of active petition drives in Michigan and other states, said Fred Wszolek, a GOP consultant working for both Secure MI Vote and Unlock Michigan 2. 

“The weather has been the bane of everybody’s existence,” Wszolek told Bridge Michigan, noting similar conditions have also complicated liberal petition drives — including initiatives to expand voter rights — that started later in the year and have not yet butted up against the 180-day collection window.

“Last week was the first really good week, just strictly from a weather standpoint,” he said Monday. “And you know, (circulators) will work if people are willing to sign, but when it's super cold out, people weren't willing to necessarily stop and sign a stack of paper.”

Despite the slow start, both GOP-backed groups continue to circulate petitions, and they are aiming to submit at least 500,000 signatures by the final June 1 deadline, giving them a healthy cushion for certification should the validity of any signatures they file be challenged or overturned, Wszolek said.

“We’re slugging away,” he added. “We’re going to get there.”

The Secure MI Vote petition, which follows former President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated claims the 2020 presidential election was rigged against him, would tighten voter ID rules, bans election officials from sending unsolicited absentee ballot applications and prohibits local clerks from accepting money from outside groups to assist with elections. 

The Unlock Michigan 2 petition proposes limiting the length of pandemic and epidemic orders from the state or local health officials to 28 days, unless extended by the state Legislature or local governments. Current law allows health officials to keep emergency orders in place as long as they deem it “necessary to protect the public health.”

Critics have decried the petition drives as attacks on voting rights and public health. Whitmer has already vetoed nearly identical legislation, but successful petition drives would allow Michigan’s GOP-led Legislature to make the initiatives law.

Unlock Michigan used the same process in 2020, when the Legislature enacted the group's first initiative to repeal a 1945 law Whitmer had used to issue unilateral orders early in the COVID-19 pandemic, which is so far linked to more than 35,000 Michigan deaths.

New campaign finance reports suggest fundraising has slowed for Unlock Michigan's second petition drive. The group reported raising $61,311 between Jan. 1 and April 20, down from $773,300 the prior quarter. As of late April, Unlock Reported $4,508 in cash reserves. 

Most of the funding for Unlock 2 has come from a newly formed non-profit called Michigan Guardians of Democracy. The dark-money group, which is not required to disclose its donors, gave $40,000 to the group in March, bringing its running total to $790,000.

Michigan Guardians of Democracy is also a top donor to Secure MI Vote. The nonprofit, whose director did not return a call seeking comment on Monday, has so far given nearly $1.4 million in money and other resources to the campaign, including more than $500,000 in the latest quarter. 

It’s not the only dark-money group helping fund the battle over voting rights in Michigan. The Sixteen Thirty Fund, a liberal nonprofit that does not disclose donors, in November contributed $300,000 to the "Protect MI Vote" committee, which is battling the GOP petition drive by asking voters to “decline to sign”

Ron Armstrong, leader of an activist group called Stand Up Michigan that played a key role in the first Unlock petition drive, warned followers last month that conservatives were having a hard time collecting signatures, predicting they would have to toss thousands collected early in the campaign. 

"We're going to lose 20,000 or 30,000 signatures that we got in November," Armstrong said in a live stream video to his followers, referring to the Unlock Michigan petition drive while also promoting Secure MI Vote and a third petition proposing to create voucher-like school scholarship accounts.

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"We have to recapture those plus anything else that's missing,” he said. 

As Bridge Michigan recently reported, worker shortages at paid circulator firms have caused signature collection prices to surge, increasing costs for both candidates and petition drives seeking to qualify for the ballot. 

Republicans seeking to rewrite voting and pandemic power laws cannot rely on paid circulators alone, Armstrong said, urging Stand Up volunteers to step up their efforts and help collect signatures ahead of the state’s final June 1 deadline. 

“It's up to us,” he said. “It's up to you. It's up to the people you know. We simply can't use the excuse that it's been cold outside, the excuse that I'm busy living my life and trying to deal with all the other things they've thrown at us."

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