Michigan House passes bill putting new requirements on ballot initiatives

Proponents argue that a Republican bill adding more requirements to citizen-initiated ballot measures would add transparency and accountability to the ballot process. Opponents say it’s a clear attempt to make it harder for citizens to enact policy. (Photo by Riley Beggin)

June 2019: Michigan Republican lawmakers challenge Nessel opinion on ballot drive law
May 2019: Michigan Attorney General: GOP limits on petition drives are unconstitutional
Dec. 28: Gov. Snyder signs bill making ballot initiatives more difficult
Dec. 21: That's a wrap! What bills passed, died in Michigan lame duck for the ages
Related: See what Michigan lame-duck bills we're tracking

A Republican-sponsored bill that would place added requirements on gathering signatures for statewide citizens initiatives passed the House late Wednesday night, despite impassioned opposition from groups as disparate as Right to Life of Michigan and the Michigan ACLU earlier in the day.

Opponents said the legislation is unconstitutional and would create untenable burdens for citizens groups and the Secretary of State’s office. Proponents said it would bring transparency and accountability to a process rife with out-of-state moneyed interests.  

It was approved by the House 60-49 along mostly party lines. Only three Republicans joined their Democratic colleagues in voting no: Reps. Martin Howrylak, Steven Johnson and Jeff Yaroch. It will now move through the Senate and, if it passes there will be presented to Gov. Rick Snyder, who has not indicated whether he would sign it.

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Population density of congressional districts

By law, congressional districts contain roughly the same number of voters – about 711,000 apiece. But districts are geographically far larger in rural areas than metropolitan ones. A bill to require citizen-backed initiatives to collect no more than 15 percent of signatures from any of Michigan’s 14 congressional districts, then, would require signature-gatherers to travel throughout the state. The vast 1st Congressional District in Northern Michigan has just 29 people per square mile, compared to the 9th Congressional District in Metro Detroit with nearly 4,000 people per mile. Click on the districts to see how many people per square mile live there

Source: Arcgis.com

The bill follows a November election in which three ballot initiatives widely supported by progressive groups ‒ legalizing marijuana, changing the state’s redistricting system and making it easier to vote ‒ were approved by Michigan voters. Two others ‒ to increase the minimum wage and require sick-leave protections for workers ‒ were preemptively passed by the Republican-led Legislature in September then gutted during the current lame-duck session.  

Related: Michigan GOP on lame duck bills: You’ll thank us later

The legislation, introduced by Rep. James Lower, R-Cedar Lake, would create new requirements for the process by which citizen initiatives get approved for the ballot. It passed out of the House Elections and Ethics committee 6-3 along party lines Wednesday morning, with Republicans approving the bill and Democrats voting against it.

House Bill 6595 would:

  • Put a cap of 15 percent on total signatures that can be gathered from any single congressional district. An earlier version of the bill required a cap of 10 percent, which only would have risen to 15 percent if Michigan, which currently has 14 congressional districts, should later lose districts after the bill takes effect.
  • Require petitions to indicate whether the person collecting the signature is paid or a volunteer. In most cases, organizations pushing ballot initiatives hire professional firms to collect the hundreds of thousands of signatures needed within the time frame allowed under state law.  
  • Require signature gatherers to file a signed affidavit with the Secretary of State indicating whether they are paid or a volunteer, and make invalid all signatures gathered by someone who has not submitted an affidavit.
  • Invalidate any signatures gathered by a circulator who has been found to provide “fraudulent information,” including an incorrect address, on that petition.

Lower told Bridge the idea for the bill sprung from knocking doors and talking with constituents in Montcalm and Gratiot counties during his re-election campaign this year.

“I was surprised how many of them didn’t realize that (the ballot initiatives) were paid for by out of state millionaires and billionaires,” Lower said. “There wasn’t really any transparency on that, people just thought it was a citizen-led effort and that’s just what it was.”

There were eight citizens initiatives in 2018. The largest funders for all but two — to repeal the state’s prevailing wage law and to switch to a part-time legislature — were from out-of-state. Voters Not Politicians (the group behind Proposal 2 on redistricting), gathered all of its signatures with volunteer circulators.

Red Michigan

Democrats and Republicans split 7-7 in the congressional district in 2018, the first time in years that Republicans did not dominate. Geographically, much of the state is in areas that lean Republican. A bill in the legislature would require citizen-backed initiatives to collect no more than 15 percent of signatures from any of Michigan’s 14 congressional districts, which foes of the measure say would require more extensive travel. Click on a district to see vote breakdowns in November.

Lower added that he chose to include the original 10 percent requirement to ensure that initiatives that make the ballot reflect the desires of the whole state.

“I represent a rural part of the state. Under the current law you can get all of the signatures from southeast Michigan and I feel like we need more buy in from (rural voters) if they’re going to be on the ballot, especially with the people who have been here talking to us saying that it represents the will of the people,” he said, referring to protestors who have voiced their frustrations during lame duck about Republican efforts to regulate the ballot measures.

Chris Thomas, the former Michigan Elections Director who has served under governors and secretaries of state of both parties, said Lower’s bill — particularly the maximum signature requirement — “is so facially unconstitutional it’s hard to believe.”

He said the bill would deny some voters the constitutional right to sign petitions based on the number of people in their district who signed before them, or based on whether a circulator registered with the state, he said. The provisions would also force the Board of State Canvassers and Supreme Court to resolve complicated legal questions within a tight time frame, which could make it nearly impossible to get an issue on the ballot.

“It’s a Catch-22 to disenfranchise voters, to make the petition process unworkable and to create a three-ring circus during the canvass process that could never happen in time,” he said.

On the House floor, Lower testified on behalf of the bill, reiterating his goals for the initiative to increase transparency and accountability. Democratic Reps. Vanessa Guerra and Yousef Rabhi spoke against the bill, as well as Howrylak, the GOP rep.

“When I see this bill it saddens me that my own political party is advocating for it,” Howrylak said, adding that the bill would effectively block people from participating in the ballot initiative process. “When we say reform we really mean obstacles to the general public”

During the committee hearing earlier Wednesday, Rep. Jeremy Moss, D-Livonia, questioned whether the Secretary of State will have the resources to enforce the maximum signature percentage rule, as the current process only requires the state to check a representative sample of signatures, which may all be from the same county or congressional district.

“You’re setting up the Secretary of State to do something that’s ungovernable, especially if we set them up without more resources,” he said.

Mike Batterbee, the Secretary of State’s director of government affairs said the agency does not have an opinion on the bill, but that counting ballots to ensure they adhere to the maximum signature threshold “does pose a bit of a problem.” He said a minimum threshold “would be more workable.”

Moss had introduced a substitute in committee that would have changed the requirement from a 10-percent maximum to a three-percent minimum. It failed.

The maximum signature requirement “gives disproportionate weight to rural areas where it’s much harder to get signatures because of a lack of people and a lack of crowds in gathering places,” said Richard Czuba, a pollster for Lansing-based Glengariff Group.

Michigan’s huge regional disparities in population density indicates it would be more challenging for petitioners to meet any geographic requirements for signatures, even a minimum. Some congressional districts in the Detroit area have nearly 4,000 people per square mile, while the congressional district that covers the Upper Peninsula has just 29.

Proponents of shifting the requirement from a maximum to a minimum argued in committee that the maximum would not force geographic diversity because there are at least seven congressional districts in the Detroit area alone; it would be possible to pass ballot initiatives based solely on voters in the lower half of the mitten.

John Bursch, the former Michigan Solicitor General, spoke in committee on behalf of the West Michigan Policy Forum and other business groups, including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, supporting the bill.

“The proposal as it’s currently written is the safest” constitutionally and mirrors other states’ requirements, he said, adding that setting a floor of support in each district could unconstitutionally raise the number of signatures required by the constitution.

Organizers who have been involved with gathering petition signatures for several organizations spoke against the bill.

Lowers’ legislation would cause “an administrative nightmare” and would discourage volunteers from being involved, said Genevieve Marnon, legislative director for Right to Life of Michigan, which has organized several successful citizens petitions with volunteer circulators. During the 2018 election, academics and politicos often noted that Right to Life was the only predecessor to Voters Not Politicians’ all-volunteer effort in recent state history.

Organizers behind proposals to guarantee paid sick leave and raise the minimum wage also told Bridge they oppose the legislation. Josh Hovey, spokesman for the successful campaign to legalize adult-use marijuana, said Lower’s legislation would have made it “extremely difficult… and extremely costly” for their proposal to make the ballot.

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Thomas E Graham
Thu, 12/13/2018 - 12:38pm

What a FANTASTIC bill this is!!!!
No longer can an out of state organization masquerade as a grassroots community driven ballot initiative, like the anti-gerrymandering proposal did. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact has already started talking about doing this in Michigan. Out of state interests LITERALLY changed our Constitution using this tactic and it really has to stop.
Bravo Republican Lame Duck Session!!!!

Thu, 12/13/2018 - 3:01pm

Really, you think if Americans for Prosperity or ALEC or The Heritage Foundation were coming into Michigan and sponsoring ballot initiatives the left would have any problem with this? Of course, they'd switch tunes in a hot second screaming about the evil out-state interests trying to steal our democracy!

Charles Roth
Thu, 12/13/2018 - 11:11pm

Lies. The anti-gerrymandering proposal was a truly grass-roots organization. Money did come in from outside, but only very near the end, basically to pay for TV ads (to counteract the blatant lies paid for by a tiny handful of GOP supporters) and legal help (to counteract the obstructionist tactics of same).
4000 VOLUNTEERS made Prop-2 happen. Not outside money.

Thu, 12/13/2018 - 12:54pm

This is just Machiavellian. The bottom line is that all of these voter ballet initiatives received enough valid voter signatures to make the ballot, and, in most cases, received the majority of votes in valid elections. This proposed legislation indicates how afraid Michigan's Republican-majority legislature is of voter direct involvement in determining the nature of Michigan's society. Signed into law, this legislation would guarantee that Michigan voters would no longer have a direct route to addressing issues which any Michigan administration and/or its legislature decide to ignore. And to have it done by a term-limited Governor and largely term-limited Senate is even more of an insult. Next citizen-led ballot initiative should be a constitutional amendment to prohibit lame-duck legislation of any kind.

Charles Roth
Thu, 12/13/2018 - 11:16pm

The statement in the article about out-of-state funding is not completely factual. For example, it counts the ACLU funding for MI Prop-3 as "out of state", but in fact a great many ACLU members are from Michigan (such as myself). A better comparison would match ACLU income from Michigan vs ACLU spending in Michigan: I suspect they are much closer to equal than the article suggests.