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Michigan Republican lawmakers challenge Nessel opinion on ballot drive law

Many Republican bills filed Wednesday in response to claims of voter fraud have little chance of becoming law, as a spokesperson for Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says any effort to limit access is a “non-starter.” (Bridge Michigan file photo)

The Republican-led Michigan House and Senate plan to sue Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson for not enforcing a lame-duck law that would make it harder for groups to land a citizen initiative on the ballot, House Republicans announced Wednesday.

The law requires ballot petitioners to gather no more than 15 percent of their signatures from any one congressional district in the state. Rep. James Lower, the law’s sponsor, argued this would ensure statewide ballot initiatives have at least some support outside urban centers.

Republicans passed the ballot collection restrictions in the last days of 2018, after the passage in the November elections of ballot measures favored by progressives to legalize recreational marijuana and change the state’s redistricting laws.

May 22, 2019: Nessel: GOP limits on petition drives are unconstitutional
Dec. 28, 2018: Gov. Snyder signs bill making ballot initiatives more difficult
Dec. 13, 2018: Michigan House passes bill putting new requirements on ballot initiatives

Attorney General Dana Nessel deemed several parts of the law unconstitutional late last month, concluding that the law “creates an obstacle for voters without any support in the Constitution itself.” Attorney General opinions are considered binding on state agencies, including the Secretary of State, which oversees elections in the state.

The House and Senate say they will file two suits against Benson in the Court of Claims and in the Michigan Court of Appeals on Wednesday, arguing Nessel’s opinion is invalid because the laws are indeed constitutional. If they win, Benson would be required to enforce the original Republican-passed law.

“The attorney general and secretary of state are grasping at straws in an attempt to circumvent the requirements of a duly enacted law,” Lower said in a statement. “They don’t get to pick and choose which laws to enforce based on personal preference.”

In addition to the signature cap, the Republican law required ballot petition circulators to sign an affidavit with the state saying whether they’re paid or volunteer (and display that designation when gathering signatures) and required the Secretary of State to create petition forms based on congressional districts rather than counties. Nessel said these provisions were also unconstitutional.

Lower argues the lame-duck law would increase transparency in the ballot initiative process, which he argued has been fueled by moneyed out-of-state interests in recent years.

Kelly Rossman-McKinney, spokeswoman for the Attorney General's office, said in a statement, “we remain exceedingly confident in our opinion ... and expect our legal arguments and assessment of the constitutionality of PA 608 will be upheld by any court which reviews the matter.” A spokesman for the Secretary of State's office said they have not yet seen the filing and declined comment.

Two groups, both seeking to restrict abortion in Michigan, have created committees to run a ballot drive in 2020.

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