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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Signature fight expected over Michigan petition drive to limit Whitmer powers

LANSING – The Unlock Michigan group seeking to repeal Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency powers said Wednesday it has collected more than 500,000 voter signatures in less than 80 days to advance its initiative to the Republican-led Legislature for potential enactment.

But the next phase of the fight could take much longer and stretch into 2021.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office said Wednesday it could take 105 days for the Bureau of Elections to review signatures and recommend whether to certify petitions, a timeline Unlock Michigan organizers blasted as “political spin” from a Democratic ally of the governor.

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The timing may be key: If the petition reaches the Legislature this year, Republican majorities in the House and Senate could – without Whitmer’s signature –  repeal the 1945 emergency powers law she has used to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But if the process stretches into 2021, and Democrats flip the state House in November, they could block the anti-Whitmer initiative and instead send it to the ballot in 2022. That’s a realistic possibility, according to Democratic strategist Adrian Hemond of Grassroots Midwest. 

“I wouldn’t put them at even money yet, but I would say that their chances [of flipping the House] have gotten someone better over the last couple of months,” he said of House Democrats, who are currently outnumbered by Republicans 58-52.

Fred Wszolek, a spokesperson for the Unlock Michigan petition drive, accused Benson, a Democrat, of politicizing the petition review process. The group will likely submit its signatures next week,  easily topping the 340,047 required, and is hoping for speedy work by the state.

Wszolek noted Benson’s own elections director, Jonathan Brater, said in a sworn affidavit this May that it “takes approximately 60 days to complete the random sampling and challenge process.”

“We’re not asking for any sort of special treatment here,” Wszolek said. “The Michigan Constitution gives residents the right to initiate laws and present them to the Legislature for a prompt vote. You’re kind of watering down that right if you reserve the right to take an indeterminate amount of time.”

Brater offered his petition review timeline in a lawsuit filed by a separate petition group that was trying to get a criminal justice reform proposal on Michigan’s 2020 ballot. It’s not relevant given the timing of the Unlock Michigan petition drive, said Benson spokesperson Tracy Wimmer.

“Director Brater referred to a specific scenario in which petition review would take approximately 60 days if the petition was submitted in summer months with more staff resources available for petition review necessary to meet a constitutional deadline,” she said. 

“Right now the Bureau of Elections is devoting all staff and resources to carrying out a successful presidential election amidst an unprecedented global pandemic. Preferential treatment will not be given to any petition, and the next deadline for review is not until 2022.”

A 105-day review would stretch the review into January. While a 60-day review could send the initiative to the Republican-led Legislature by late November or December. 

Should the petition drive reach them this year, term-limited House Speaker Lee Chatfield of Levering and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey of Clarklake have already committed to holding votes on the Unlock Michigan initiative. 

The petition seeks to repeal a 1945 law Whitmer has used to extend a state of emergency over since March. A separate 1976 emergency law requires legislative approval every 28 days, and organizers say repeal of the earlier statute would force the governor to work with the Legislature on a bipartisan response to COVID-19 or other emergencies.

“This initiative isn’t about any one rule, or any one personality,” Unlock Michigan co-Chair Ron Armstrong said in a statement. “This proposed law simply takes away the ability of a single politician to rule like a monarch for as long as they like.”

Whitmer has called the attempt to strip her powers in the midst of a global pandemic “irresponsible, dangerous and foolish.” She’s used the effort in fundraising pitches to supporters, urging them to help Democrats flip the state House this fall.

Keep Michigan Safe, a committee formed by Whitmer allies to fight the petition drive, signalled Wednesday that it plans to vigorously challenge any signatures submitted to the state by Unlock Michigan – a prospect that could slow the review process. 

“Unlock Michigan’s petition firm put a known criminal into a leadership position, hired a trainer who encouraged people to lie under oath and held training sessions where people were schooled how to lie, cheat, break the law and deceive,” said spokesperson Mark Fisk, referencing a series of investigative reports by the Detroit Free Press. 

“We are calling for a complete review of each and every signature and a full investigation by state officials to protect the integrity of the petition process and expose the true magnitude of illegal and improper conduct.”

The Free Press this week published a secret recording in which a petition firm working for Unlock Michigan coached paid circulators on giving false information to voters, illegally collecting signatures without witnessing them, trespassing and lying under oath.  In August, the newspaper reported another company it had hired to circulate petitions has a history of giving inaccurate descriptions of petitions to secure signatures, which is not illegal under Michigan law. 

Bridge Michigan has also received alerts from readers who say petition circulators misled them about the content of the petition in order to solicit signatures. 

Wszolek, the Unlock Michigan spokesperson, suggested the secret audio recording obtained by the Free Press was a setup by Whitmer allies, a charge the Keep Michigan Safe Committee called “100 percent false.” The organizer in the recording is a “left-wing operative” who was subcontracting and may have intentionally tried to make Unlock Michigan look bad, Wszolek said.

“Our proposal is really simple, and we have no problem getting people to sign it,” he told Bridge. “If some circulator thinks they have to bend the truth out there to get somebody to sign this, they’re just standing in the wrong place or don’t know how to explain it.”

Hemond, the Democratic strategist, predicted Whitmer allies will fight to challenge every signature submitted by Unlock Michigan in an attempt to delay certification in hopes that Democrats regain control of the state House in 2021 and punt it to the ballot in 2022.

“It’s a lot easier to defeat this thing at the ballot than it is with the Republican-controlled Legislature,” he said. 

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