LANSING — A slim majority of Michigan voters oppose a new petition initiative to limit the emergency powers Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer used to shut down the economy and issue public safety orders amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new statewide poll conducted by EPIC-MRA for Bridge Michigan.
But that may not matter much, because “Unlock Michigan” organizers need only to persuade about 8 percent of likely voters to sign the petition in order to send the measure to the Legislature, where Republican majorities could enact it without the governor’s signature.
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Fifty-two percent of Michigan voters oppose the initiative to repeal a 1945 law Whitmer has used to extend an emergency declaration first issued in March, while 43 percent support it, according to a survey of 600 likely voters conducted July 25-30 from EPIC-MRA of Lansing.
Five percent of respondents were either undecided or declined to weigh in on the proposal, which would require legislative approval to extend a state of emergency beyond 28 days. The live operator survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
POLL QUESTION: In Michigan, the governor has the authority to declare a state of emergency, such as the one for the coronavirus. There is a ballot petition circulating that would require a governor to obtain legislative approval to extend that emergency declaration beyond 28 days. Do you support or oppose the petition that limits a governor’s authority to extend a state of emergency?
[IF SUPPORT/OPPOSE, ASK: “Would that be strongly or somewhat?”]
- 31% Strongly support
- 12% Somewhat support
- 43% TOTAL SUPPORT
- 52% TOTAL OPPOSE
- 14% Somewhat oppose
- 38% Strongly oppose
- 5% Undecided/Refused
The results are consistent with voter attitudes about Whitmer’s job performance during the pandemic, said pollster Bernie Porn. Most voters continue to give her high marks for her response to COVID-19, but “there are people out there that would sign [the petition], clearly.”
They already are – and at a fast clip, according to Fred Wszolek, a spokesperson for the petition committee. Unlock Michigan collected more than 100,000 valid signatures in the first three weeks after beginning to circulate the last month, he said.
“I’m not fazed at all by poll data,” Wszolek told Bridge. “We don’t think this will end up on the ballot. We believe the Legislature will enact this, and this won’t be something that voters are facing.”
Successful petition proposals often end up on the statewide ballot, but the Michigan Constitution also gives lawmakers 40 days to approve and enact initiatives on their own.
If organizers collect the 340,047 valid voter signatures required to send the measure to the Legislature this year, GOP leaders will have to decide whether taking up the measure is worth the political risk given Whitmer’s popularity, Porn said.
“They are not winning on the issue. So the question is, are they willing to just plow forward and take the action?” he asked. “My guess is they probably are given the positions they’ve taken in the past.”
Whitmer’s emergency declaration, and her 161 executive orders that have followed since March, have sparked partisan debate in Lansing over pandemic policy and gubernatorial power. The new polling suggests a partisan divide among voters as well.
Eighty percent of Democrats oppose the initiative to limit the governor’s powers, but nearly 3 in 4 Republicans support it, according to the survey. It is also supported by 76 percent of voters with a favorable opinion of GOP President Donald Trump, who has clashed with Whitmer over government responses to the coronavirus pandemic.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield have signaled support for the petition drive to repeal the Emergency Powers of Governor Act of 1945. The GOP-led Legislature is also fighting Whitmer in court, arguing she violated a separate 1976 law by continuing to extend her emergency declaration without legislative approval.
A Michigan Court of Claims Judge disagreed, siding with Whitmer in May, but the Legislature has appealed. The case is expected to eventually reach the Michigan Supreme Court.
Chatfield contends Whitmer is relying on a “novel misinterpretation” of the 1945 law to continue the state of emergency even though Republican lawmakers refused her request to approve an extension beyond April 30.
“While I believe the law itself is sufficient and merely disagree with the governor’s interpretation of it, I am supportive of any effort to curtail further abuses of power,” Chatfield, R-Levering, wrote on Facebook. “And so if the initiative is presented to the Legislature, I will support it.”
Whitmer has criticized the effort, calling it “irresponsible, dangerous and foolish” given the ongoing pandemic. Her campaign committee has cited the petition drive in fundraising pleas to supporters, including a recent mailer seeking donations to help Democrats regain control of the state House in the November election.
Tiffany Brown, a spokesperson to Whitmer, released a statement saying "this poll shows continued public support for our efforts to slow the spread of the pandemic and get our economy moving again."
The Michigan Constitution sets signature thresholds for petition drives at 8 percent of the total turnout in the most recent gubernatorial election. While there are 7.7 million registered voters in Michigan, about 4.25 million cast ballots in the 2018 election that Whitmer won by nearly 10 percentage points over Republican Bill Schuette.
That’s why organizers need to collect 340,047 valid signatures, a benchmark Wszolek said he is confident they will meet as Whitmer continues to issue executive orders.
“Everytime the governor does something new on this subject, another group of people become extremely motivated,” he said. “The level of activity this weekend in northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula [where Whitmer recently tightened regulations] was breathtaking.”
Michigan law gives petitioners 180 days to collect signatures, meaning Unlock Michigan has until early January to file with the state. But organizers hope to beat that deadline and get the initiative to the Legislature this year while they are still guaranteed a GOP majority in the state House.
Unlock Michigan appears to be well funded, but the source of that funding is largely unknown. The committee’s largest contributor — responsible for $660,200 of the $765,024 the group had raised through July 20 — is Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, a mysterious nonprofit that is not required to disclose donors.
The funding sparked a campaign finance complaint from an unlikely source: Bob LaBrant, a retired GOP attorney who spent decades working to loosen political spending restrictions and has been called an “unsung genius of the super PAC age.”
LaBrant argues Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility is acting as its own ballot committee because it has made several large contributions to Unlock Michigan. That suggests the nonprofit is focused on raising funds for the petition drive, he said, and therefore should be required to file disclosure reports under the Michigan Campaign Finance Act.
Beyond the legal arguments, LaBrant acknowledged he has a personal motivation to challenge the petition drive: As a 73-year-old who has survived a heart attack and cancer, he’s concerned about the coronavirus and its impact on those with underlying medical conditions.
“I happen to think the governor’s done a good job in trying to deal with the COVID-19 crisis,” LaBrant told Bridge.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office is reviewing the campaign finance complaint and will ultimately decide whether it has merit.
Wszolek dismissed the complaint as “nonsense on stilts,” arguing that LaBrant is relying on a “wacky presumption” that the nonprofit donor is behaving illegally because it made more than one contribution.
“Obviously, he needs a new hobby in his retirement,” Wszolek said of LaBrant.
Unlock Michigan now has more than 1,500 unique donors, Wszolek added. “We get $5 donations online, we get $100,000 donations online. It’s been remarkable the number of people who are finding us and chipping in.”
Editor's Note: This article was updated at 4:30 p.m. Aug. 6 with a response from Whitmer's spokesperson.