Ban on per-signature fees can help rescue our Michigan Constitution

While giving a speech last week, I asked the audience some questions: “How many have seen TV ads on any of the six ballot proposals?” Every hand in the room went up.

“How many like the ads?” Not one hand was raised.

“How many have had your minds changed by the ads?” Again, not a hand.

“How many think the ads will have an impact on the election?” More than half said yes.

Anybody trying to see how the Tigers are doing on TV -- or watched just about anything else lately -- has seen an avalanche of advertising on the ballot proposals. Thirty million dollars has been spent so far, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, which estimates another $10 million will be spent by Election Day.

That’s certainly going to be a record. And judging from my audience, the ads are not popular. Nor does anyone admit to having their minds changed by them. But many believe they change other minds. So, like it or not, all of us are going to continue to be on the receiving end of all those ads between now and Nov. 6, like it or not.

Which brings us to my fundamental point: The rights of citizens to referendum, initiative and recall are a basic democratic protection for a free people, as specified by Michigan’s Constitution. The way such freedoms are exercised is by collecting signatures from registered voters. Then, if the secretary of state determines the required number have been collected and properly filed, their existence is held to legally demonstrate enough public support to justify Michigan putting a proposal on the statewide ballot.

For a proposed constitutional amendment to qualify, 322,609 valid signatures are currently required, which amounts to 10 percent of the votes cast for governor at the last election. Of the six statewide ballot questions this time, all are proposed amendments except Proposal 1, a simple referendum on the emergency manager law.

Back when our state’s constitution was written half a century ago, the delegates believed that such a proportion of signatures would demonstrate legitimate grass-roots citizen support. But they never dreamed of companies whose business is soliciting signatures for pay.

The Voters Voice Group is an outfit based in Little Rock, Ark. The website says the company is a “non-partisan team focused on supporting the voice of the people.”

Evidently the “voice of the people” is measured by the company’s willingness to pay solicitors per signature: $2 each for “taxes and bridges,” $1 for “clean energy and medical care.”

They aren’t alone in offering their assistance for pay -- other firms do so as well. The delegates who wrote the Michigan Constitution that was adopted in 1963 never saw this coming.

Former “Con-Con” delegate Eugene Wagner has said there was no discussion of solicitors soliciting signatures for hire “descending on the state like a bunch of locusts.”

But descend they did, and so what we now have in Michigan is a cottage industry in the business of getting proposals on the ballot for pay, the activity masquerading as “the voice of the people.”

No, damn it; it is anything but. This has become a malignant business that helps wealthy customers pay to get proposals advancing their own parochial interests on the ballot. Constitutions are supposed to constitute the basic framework of our system of democratic government. But when such proposals are adopted, they thereby inject selfish and narrow special interest provisions into our state constitution.

There’s little mystery these days about the signature solicitation business. It costs any well-heeled special interest something like $1.5 million to pay for enough signatures to get something on the ballot, and another $2 million to $4 million to buy the TV ads to promote it, if it is going to have any chance of passage.

The net result: The very best -- or worst -- government money can buy. Do people like it? Not if my audience last week is to be believed. Does all this strength our democratic system of governance? Not if you look to California for evidence.

There, the requirements for getting something on the ballot are much looser than Michigan’s, which has meant that our nation’s largest state has become essentially ungovernable. “Californication” is hard to pronounce, but entirely apt.

What to do about it? Simple. Have the Legislature simply pass a law that bans the practice of paying solicitors per signature to put stuff on the ballot. Six states – Montana, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Oregon and Wyoming – have already done it.

Passing such a law would leave in place the citizen protections of initiative and referendum, and avoid threatening our First Amendment rights of freedom of speech.

What we don’t want is for our Michigan Constitution to become a  laughingstock and our Legislature to become irrelevant.

That means we need to change this, fast. It’s too late to do so for 2012. But once the dust has settled from this year’s embarrassing demonstrations of special interest wealth and power, we should step in and actually do something in the public interest, and stop this perversion of democracy before it’s too late.

Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.

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Edward A. Proct...
Tue, 10/16/2012 - 9:59am
Very enlightening. Most of us had no idea. Let us pursue with vigor the solution!.
Robert Tulloch
Tue, 10/16/2012 - 10:16am
I disagree. The right to petition the government to redress grievances is ingrained in our constitution. The collection of signatures on a petition is protected speech under the first amendment and many court rulings have supported this concept. I just won a suit in US District court against the City of Jackson which had a city charter provision requiring petition circulators to be registered voters in the city. Remember, it is the voters who actually accept or reject a proposal put on the ballot by petition. The circulators, paid or unpaid are simply carrying the issue to the voters.Suppressing the right to petition is un-American. I am against these proposals not only because they do no belong in the constitution but I also disagree with the actual proposal language.
Tue, 10/16/2012 - 1:45pm
Yes, paying people to collect petition signatures means that anyone with a lot of money can put their proposal on the ballot. But it is next to impossible to collect the number of signatures currently required by using volunteers only. If the Legislature was a truly democratic institution, ballot initiatives wouldn't be necessary. Making the Legislature unicameral would help; a move toward direct democracy would help even more. But until then, the people need some way to circumvent a Legislature that does not truly represent the will of the majority. Maybe we could devise a way to collect those petition signatures online . . .
Tue, 10/16/2012 - 7:17pm
I agree. Any way we can stop money from corrupting our political system is a good thing. We also need to stop allowing people to pay to get on the ballot as a candidate. That would have prevented "Bolgergate." I wrote about that change here:
Wed, 10/17/2012 - 12:25am
“Back when our state’s constitution was written half a century ago, the delegates believed that such a proportion of signatures would demonstrate legitimate grass-roots citizen support. But they never dreamed of companies whose business is soliciting signatures for pay.” When that was written there were a couple of organizations in the State that had memberships that met that 10% criterion. I suspect that many of those writing the Constitution recognized that that gave them an ability to be a ‘legitimate grass-roots citizen support.’ without any other citizens being asked. A word from one of the Presidents of those couple of organizations could have had the issue on the ballot without even getting all of their members to sign. Does Proposition 12-2 come to mind. Now that people are allow to reach out to others on an issue by using paid people Mr. Power is upset, it seems to no longer represent the citizens support. It doesn’t seem to matter to Mr. Power that Michigan citizens had a choice on whether they signed the petition or not. Mr. Power’s seems more concerned about who offered the petition rather than allowing the citizens a choice to sign or not. I maybe wrong but it seems Mr. Power doesn’t trust our citizens to chose right at elections because he seems to want to stop at least some of the campaign ads. I wonder which is he would rather not trust to the voters. I would like to think Mr. Power is a fair minded man and supports the 1st Amendment for all the people and on all the issues, but in today’s column he does seem upset that at least one of the issues has had that access.