Nessel investigates Unlock Michigan petition drive

A paid petition circulator for Unlock Michigan collects signatures at a Traverse City farmers’ market in July. (Bridge file photo by Jonathan Oosting)

Attorney General Dana Nessel said Monday she’s opening an investigation into potentially unlawful practices by Unlock Michigan, the petition group seeking to rein in emergency powers Democratic Gov. Whitmer has relied on to issue COVID-19 orders.

Nessel’s office did not respond when asked if the probe could invalidate any of the 500,000 voter signatures the group says it has already collected, but one longtime elections attorney said it could result in misdemeanor criminal charges against circulators, petition firms or others involved in the effort.

Unlock Michigan spokesman Fred Wszolek called Nessel’s investigation a “partisan political farce” by Democrats designed to undermine a speedy and successful petition drive. 

Detroit Free Press last week reported on secretly recorded footage that showed an Unlock Michigan subcontractor coaching petition circulators to give voters false information about the petitions and to collect signatures without witnessing them, among other things.  

Michigan does not have a law prohibiting circulators from lying about the contents of a petition, but there are misdemeanor laws against circulators collecting signatures without witnessing them, a crime that is punishable by up to 93 days in jail and a fine of $500.

It’s also illegal to aid or abet another person who violates the petition drive law, and that could open Unlock Michigan sponsors or their signature firms up to criminal liability, according to attorney John Pirich, a Michigan elections expert and Whitmer donor who wrote Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson last week to request an investigation. 

Nessel, a Democrat, said her office will probe the claims and prosecute if the evidence shows that crimes were committed. 

“Our democracy is firmly rooted in the principles of an informed electorate which makes decisions at the polls based on reason and beliefs over lies and deception,” she said in a statement. “Our ballot initiative process allows efforts with strong public support to be presented to the Legislature. But that process becomes tainted when petition circulators manipulate and cheat to serve their own agendas.”

Organizers for Unlock Michigan, who plan to turn their signatures into the state on Friday, have downplayed the Free Press report and suggested the subcontractor who was filmed, Eric Tisinger, may have been a Democratic plant attempting to make the group look bad.

“The person who was supposedly on camera saying these things, urging people to break the law, is a liberal Democratic activist from California,” said Wszolek. “I don’t know how he ended up in any way attached to what we’re doing, because he obviously doesn’t believe any of it.”

The petition seeks to repeal the 1945 law Whitmer has used to extend a state of emergency during the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s used the authority to continue issuing executive orders even though the GOP-led Legislature declined to extend the emergency beyond April 30.

Unlock Michigan organizers collected far more signatures than the 340,047 required to advance the initiative to the Legislature, where they hope Republican majorities in the House and Senate will take up and enact the initiative before the end of the year. 

The state review process could take months, however,  and Whitmer allies appear poised to try and slow the process in hopes that Democrats flip the state House this fall and block legislative action on the initiative next year, which would send it to the 2022 ballot for voters to decide.

Nessel spokesperson Ryan Jarvi told Bridge Michigan that the attorney general’s office “can’t speculate as to whether any potential charges will invalidate signatures” collected by Unlock Michigan, “as it may depend on evidence gathered in our investigation and the particular charge.”

Nessel’s wife, Alanna Maguire, is a lead organizer for a separate petition drive seeking a 2022 ballot proposal that would add anti-discrimination protections for gay and transgender residents to Michigan law. One Unlock Michigan subcontractor claimed to be collecting signatures for that effort as well, creating a potential conflict for Nessel in the Unlock Michigan probe. 

But Nessel’s office had already established an “isolation wall” that screens her from viewing any department work pertaining to the LGBT rights proposal, Jarvi said.

“The office will conduct a fair and unbiased review of the evidence and follow the investigation,” he said of the Unlock Michigan probe.

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Tue, 09/29/2020 - 8:33am

All I've heard from the people opposed to this investigation is victim blaming. "They should've known what they were signing..." blah blah blah. Do you feel the same way about victims of identity theft? Don't you think we should be able to trust canvassers to not misrepresent their position?

Bob Balwinski
Tue, 09/29/2020 - 10:31am

"Michigan does not have a law prohibiting circulators from lying about the contents of a petition."

This is a joke, right??? Folks can legally lie about the contents of a petition in order to get your signature???? This just can't be correct.

Tue, 09/29/2020 - 10:48am

The aristocracy of these laws are not what our founders intended. There are three branches and all three need to negotiate. We do not have Kings and Queens. We should not have Governor's with ultimate rule over a city or over the State. If we have to start with 1945, fine. But, these laws must go.

Tue, 09/29/2020 - 11:55am

Yep Let us kill off more republican voters who still believe trump!!!

Tue, 09/29/2020 - 4:44pm

Then why are the petitioners lying to people to induce them to sign?

Tue, 09/29/2020 - 11:10am

My impression is that collecting signatures has become a well consulted endeavor. Certainly, rules must be equally applied to be fair. Would anyone suspect that no such efforts and actions were not plied by the energetic stoners and their cohorts more likely to have also generated a progressive tide in voting for the cuurent administration in the last election cycle?

Tue, 09/29/2020 - 11:57am

You mean all the 20 signers that put Mike Duggan on the ballot ????

Tue, 09/29/2020 - 4:45pm

That's red herring you're serving, dodge and deny when caught engaged in fraud?

Margaret Morgan
Tue, 09/29/2020 - 12:54pm

I was approached at a strip shopping mall and told he was collecting signatures for an upcoming election. My name was going on a petition to be put up for a vote.

Tue, 09/29/2020 - 1:34pm

I hope the Attorney General's vendetta against the organizers of Unlock Michigan does not compromise her obligation to protect the rights of the hundreds of thousands of Michigan citizens who purposefully signed the petition with the intent of restoring a balance of power to our government. Unfortunately, I believe those people will have their right to petition trampled on by another tyrant in Lansing.

Jake K
Tue, 09/29/2020 - 1:37pm

Sure hoping that the Unlock Michigan efforts don't get sidetracked by ineffective management. Amazes me that the AG can be used to protect her partisan counterpart from legitimate citizenry actions. Perhaps she should spend her time protecting the cumulative state population rather than just the interests of the Dems.

Bill Cardinal
Tue, 09/29/2020 - 2:09pm

If the emergency measures taken by Governor Whitmer, a Democrat, were being done by former Governor Snyder, a republican, these people would do whatever he asked without question. The biggest mistake that was made by all levels of government was to tell people that their wearing a mask protects others. What I’m seeing is not a lot of concern about the other person. They should have said wear a mask to protect yourself.

Thu, 10/01/2020 - 8:44am

It doesn't matter what good and scientifically backed reasons are given for wearing a mask when we have a president who ignores the science and the experts and instead refuses to enforce a mask mandate at his large indoor rallies that don't follow social distancing guidelines and makes fun of his opponent for wearing a mask and for limiting crowd size.

Paul Schultz
Wed, 09/30/2020 - 8:50am

So.... The same thing that communist china does when they want to silence the opposition - Create a criminal investigation out of nothing?
Let's make sure we follow Stretchin' Gretchen and her Nazi team of deranged women with this for the rest of their lives. Never let them forget the damage that they have done to this state!!!

Thu, 10/01/2020 - 11:46am

How are red states doing right now? How did Florida and Texas do when they relaxed restrictions?