Signature fight expected over Michigan petition drive to limit Whitmer powers

A paid petition circulator for Unlock Michigan collects signatures at a Traverse City farmers’ market in July. Organizers need to collect 340,047 valid voter signatures to send the initiative to the Legislature. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)

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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middle of the mit
Fri, 09/25/2020 - 6:43pm

This may be why people are challenging the ballot initiative.

State Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) has been trying to change that since his first term in the state House from 2015 to 2016.* He says the issue contributes to Michigan ranking last on ethics and transparency laws, but critics — including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan — say reforming the process could curtail certain First Amendment freedoms.

The Board of State Canvassers approved the petition. Opponents in the “Keep Michigan Safe” group filed suit against the petition’s allegedly “defective language” that could mislead voters about its intent, which was tossed this week by a Court of Appeals panel. Attorney Mark Brewer, a former Michigan Democratic Party chair, told the Advance they plan to appeal.

But Unlock Michigan spokesperson Fred Wszolek said, “Our petition circulators are doing their work under giant banners that say, ‘End Whitmer’s Endless Shutdown.’ We aren’t misrepresenting anything.”

“It’s a sad fact that you just cannot listen to a pitch. You have to actually read what you sign, because there are people taking advantage of the lack of ethics on this process,” Moss said.

That would include a law ending the pay-per-signature incentive for circulators, which could lead to unethical behavior in order to collect more signatures, as well as a requirement to disclose whether a circulator is paid or volunteering. Moss says both would increase transparency and give Michiganders more peace of mind about what they are being asked to sign.

Banning pay-per-signature and “discriminating against” paid circulators by making them disclose their paid status, Brewer said, would both be “unconstitutional” and “a violation of the First Amendment.”
Huh? Whaat? Disclosing you are getting paid to push an election matter should NOT be a violation of Free speech! You are getting paid to promote the idea you are promoting, to INFLUENCE AN ELECTION. It SHOULD BE REQUIRED that you INFORM people, whether you personally agree or not, what you are doing, and who you are doing it for!

Makes no difference! Why? Because FOX (so called) News just won ANOTHER case to lie to their viewers again! NO! This one isn't from 2003 and has nothing to do with Jane Akers or her husband!

Let's just say that, the judge used the verdict in his last case,

But what does it matter? Bridge hasn't been posting comments for days at a time, and who knows what you aren't letting through. I know you won't allow the Cuban history through. Free speech, huh? Civility.........with critical comments but false (lies) and sterotyping are not allowed? Come on.

If you are no longer going to allow comments, you should just stop offering the option. I came here hoping to get answers to questions that conservatives won't answer in person. The same ones politicians won't answer to the press..........and more. You will accept their non answers and then both sides the argument. I am not going both sides anything until I get a position from the right.

And according to the court, they can just lie to the end of eternity............and the press isn't going to push them on it. Unless it's Rachel Maddow and Monna Hanna Atisha!

Ohhhh that's gotta hurt! If it doesn't...........why should it? The MI press awarded itself a whole bunch of of that one interview.............that they didn't push for.

I wonder why they didn't get the exclusive with Monna Hanna Atisha?

STOP Trusting conservatives! STOP both sidesing things! Do you both sides things with your children, or do you take favorites? Or do you dig and ask questions from both sides, and when one story seems a little too.....................especially considering what was said, what was done and what knowledge you have...............Oh! Well the Gov says it's OK. The DHHS says it's OK. The top Doc of the State says it's OK, but there is this doctor in Flint who says things.............but..........We go with the Gov! Are you fans of Jason Chaffetz? The man who complained about stoopid, dumb and dangerous lead and copper rules...........until he realized that those same rules were the ones HIS PARTY put in place? If you are............I am done reading this venue!~

Wrong! And who paid for it? Who was held responsible? And who got awards? Who got shafted? And what has been done?


WE are NOT the Nation WE Project to others or ourselves. Why do we keep trying to deceive ourselves?

I find it hilarious, that the Detroit Free Press comment section has been overtaken by right wingers, Bridge is no longer allowing comments but the Detroit News just started allowing comments within the last 3 weeks.

You gotta love the press don't ya? Always looking out for themselves, while saying they are looking out for America!

Liberal Press? Ha ha ha ha ha!!!!

Maybe the Press could do an in depth investigation into whether or not individuals get better deals or groups do? NO body has ever heard of bulk purchasing...........yet the press let it slide......

OUch!!! The only reason I keep saying 'cause if that happened to me........I would feel pain. This is America. Shame and being wrong means you haven't pushed hard enough to make what you want...........shameless.

We are getting there. Press.............keep on pressing and we will get their bothsidsin' year at a time. We gotta slow walk this, ya know. Boiling frogs and all.......

Sat, 09/26/2020 - 9:25pm

You seem to be panicking. I'm having a hard time understanding what you are trying to say. Deep breaths...
I absolutely hope that this petition passes and the legislature adopts it. It contains simple language. It says we are revoking the power granted to the governor by the 1945 EPA. We the people have that right, as the governor gets her power from US. It's not the other way around. If she were a better leader, they would not have been able to get half a million signatures. It's a simple fact.

Sun, 09/27/2020 - 6:23pm

I signed the petition. I would guess the folks seeking signatures were being paid, but they did not misrepresent either of the petitions they had. They did not rush me, allowed me plenty of time to read the petitions.
I think there needs to limits on a governor's power to declare emergencies and issue orders. It seems appropriate that the governor has the authority to act quickly and unilaterally in an emergency and then obtain timely concurrence from the legislature, such as the 28 days in the later law.