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Pandemic powers, voter ID petition drives may be in trouble in Michigan

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Ballot efforts to limit pandemic powers and require voters to present ID may be in jeopardy of failing to make the November ballot. (Shutterstock)

LANSING — Some conservative activists worry a pair of high-profile GOP-led petition initiatives may not make a June 1 deadline to collect enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot.

One measure that would limit public health emergency orders to 28 days, Unlock Michigan II, is in “in real trouble,” according to Ron Armstrong, executive director of Stand Up Michigan, a conservative grassroots group helping several initiatives collect signatures.

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“I'm not giving up, but I'm telling you it's a huge, huge hill to climb,” Armstrong told his members in a Monday night video call livestreamed on Locals, an online platform owned by conservative site Rumble. The conservative activist co-chaired Unlock Michigan, a similar campaign that helped rein in Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency powers in 2020. 

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During the call, Armstrong also said a GOP-backed measure to tighten voting rules, Secure MI vote, is roughly 100,000 signatures short of the minimum requirement to make the ballot.

“It is shocking to me that, for literally almost two years we have complained about elections in Michigan, but yet when we started this last fall, with all the anger, all the frustration, that we literally have had little or no help compared to what we had with Unlock Michigan,” he said.

The concerns come even though conservatives strongly back both measures, and both were widely expected to be adopted into law by the Republican-led Legislature, without the threat of a veto.

If signatures fall short, the efforts are likely dead. Whitmer has already vetoed legislative efforts to limit the length of health emergency orders and tighten election rules.

Jamie Roe, spokesperson for Secure MI Vote, disputed Armstrong’s characterization Thursday.

“We’re going to have more than enough to qualify,” he said. “But we need everybody who has a petition outstanding now to send them in.”

Fred Wszolek, spokesperson for Unlock Michigan II, was not available for comment Thursday.

Secure MI Vote, one of the most-watched proposals this election, would require voter ID for in-person voting, ban unsolicited mailing of absentee ballot applications, restrict mail-in ballots and bar outside funding for elections, among other things. Unlock Michigan II seeks to limit the length of emergency orders unless they are extended by the state Legislature or local governments.

More than 10 petition drives are collecting signatures statewide, and it’s been a challenge for both the ballot measures and statewide candidates who also must gather signatures to make the ballot.

While ballot measures seeking new state laws must  submit at least 340,047 valid signatures by June 1, campaigns seeking to amend the state Constitution, on the other hand, have until July 11 to submit at least 425,059 valid signatures to appear on the November ballot.

Both Secure MI Vote and Unlock Michigan II missed the initial 180-day deadline to submit signatures last month. Michigan law limits signature collections to 180 days, and both campaigns must throw out initial signatures as they continue to circulate petitions this spring, since they began the effort in October.

Campaigns that rely on professional signature gathering services are faced with skyrocketing signature costs up to $20 apiece — thanks to worker shortages and inflation.

Republican gubernatorial candidates Perry Johnson and James Craig also face accusations that their campaigns submitted forged signatures, claims that could jeopardize their candidacies. Craig’s campaign acknowledged the alleged signature forgeries Wednesday and deemed it a potential effort by a group of circulators to “defraud the campaign.”

Tudor Dixon, another Republican hopeful for governor, also faces a challenge from Democrats who say she should be disqualified from the ballot because her petitions contained an incorrect date

Lack of support ‘shocking’

During the Monday video, Armstrong said the apparent lack of momentum for Secure MI Vote is “shocking.”

“We're probably in the 200,000 plus signatures that have been turned in and validated at this point,” he said. “All it required was the 40,000 or so that helped circulate Unlock Michigan to get 10 signatures each. And yet it didn't happen.”

The Secure MI Vote campaign asked him to sign a letter to former supporters of Unlock Michigan to sign the petition, Armstrong said.

The campaign website urges supporters to mail back signed petitions by May 23 — a week before the submission deadline. The campaign may have mailed out “a couple hundred thousand” petitions in recent weeks to people who previously expressed support for the campaign, Roe told Bridge on Thursday. 

Roe said the campaign has faced struggles like other ballot measures, pointing to the cold weather earlier this year and the “unprecedented” signature costs. He also accused liberal group Protect MI Vote of paying circulators not to work for Secure MI Vote — an allegation based on a complaint alleging the liberal group bought out paid signature gatherers and failed to list it in campaign finance disclosures.

Secure MI Vote wants to build up a “cushion” by collecting as many signatures as possible, because “the Left is hellbent on stopping us,” Roe said.

Backed by the Michigan Republican Party, the conservative campaign had raised $1.2 million by the end of March, with $1.1 million from newly formed “dark money” group Michigan Guardians for Democracy, which is not required to disclose its donors. 

The same group is also a major donor to Unlock Michigan II and Let MI Kids Learn, a ballot measure to establish a school voucher-like scholarship program that would be funded by donations and give donors tax credits for their contributions.

Heritage Action for America, a sister organization to the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, sent an email Wednesday urging its members to mail in signed Secure MI Vote and Let MI Kids Learn petitions. 

“The Secure MI Vote and Let MI Kids Learn are in the final days of gathering signatures, and are getting close to the goal!” the email reads. “If you have completed petitions, they are needed ASAP to prepare them to submit to the Secretary of State at the end of this month.”

The Heritage Foundation crafted laws to restrict voting access in Georgia last year, Mother Jones reported

“In some cases, we actually draft them for them,” Jessica Anderson, executive director of Heritage Action for America, said in a private meeting with donors in April 2021. “Or we have a sentinel on our behalf give them the model legislation so it has that grassroots, from-the-bottom-up type of vibe.”

The Georgia laws reflect recommendations directly from the Heritage Foundation’s “best practices,” including voter ID requirements for in-person voting and absentee ballot applications and restricting absentee ballot access — ideas similar to those pushed by Secure MI Vote.

Liberal groups gear up for deadline

Liberal ballot campaigns are also ramping up signature collecting efforts.

Michiganders for Fair Lending — a ballot initiative that would cap the maximum fee and interest rate a payday loan lender can charge in Michigan annually at 36 percent — has hired more signature gatherers as the deadline nears, said campaign spokesperson Josh Hovey.

“We’ve definitely staffed up to make sure we are able to meet our goals for that final push,” he said.

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Promote the Vote 2022, a ballot initiative seeking to amend the Michigan Constitution to expand voting access, appears to have increased the number of petition signing events in recent weeks. The campaign planned 27 events in April and 63 in May, according to its calendar.

Reproductive Freedom for All, a constitutional amendment proposal that would enshrine women’s rights to abortion into the state Constitution, said it gained 25,000 new volunteers in one week this month.

The volunteers came after a draft opinion was leaked this month indicating the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, a 1973 landmark case and leave the decision making power to each state. 

In Michigan, that would mean a 1931 law criminalizing abortion would go into immediate effect.

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