Michigan lame duck: Ballot rules may tighten, campaign finance stays with SOS

Controversial bills to define political affiliations for the new redistricting commission and to create a new campaign finance commission are now considered dead.

Dec. 21: That's a wrap! What bills passed, died in Michigan lame duck for the ages
Related: See what Michigan lame-duck bills we're tracking

Michigan’s Republican legislature advanced bills Wednesday that set new requirements on collecting ballot petitions and registering to vote ‒ both of which drew criticism from Democrats and activist groups.

Many of those same critics, however, took comfort from two other GOP lame-duck efforts that are now apparently dead for lack of support:

  • The first would have taken away campaign finance oversight from the Secretary of State, who will be a Democrat when the new legislative term begins in January. This was among several bills that brought unflattering national attention to Republican lawmakers, who have long controlled the state House and Senate. Critics accused them of attempting to limit the authority of incoming Democrats to statewide office.  
  • The second was a proposal to set rules around a new independent redistricting commission. That commission is to take shape in 2019 following the passage of a ballot measure that ends the practice of the political party in power controlling how legislative maps are drawn. 

With Thursday the last scheduled day of Michigan’s lame-duck legislative session, much remains unclear about which bills will eventually go to Gov. Rick Snyder, another lame duck Republican, but one with power to approve or veto whatever reaches his desk.

What follows is a breakdown of what Wednesday wrought in the state legislature. Two Republican-backed proposals remain alive for now, while two others succumbed days before crossing the finish line.   

Related: Michigan power grabs, pipelines and pot: What we’re tracking in lame duck

New requirements for collecting ballot petitions  

HB 6595, which advanced Wednesday, would create a 15-percent ceiling on the number of signatures ballot petitioners can gather from any one of Michigan’s 14 congressional districts. The bill’s Republican sponsor says this would require petition groups to show they can collect signatures from geographically diverse areas of the state.

Democratic critics say it’s a transparent effort to discourage petition drives following an election in which three ballot proposals widely supported by progressives ‒ legalizing recreational marijuana, changing the redistricting system and making voting easier ‒ passed easily in November.

The Senate Elections and Government Reform committee passed the bill to the full Senate along party lines Wednesday afternoon after a litany of bipartisan testimony opposing the bill. It must be approved by the Senate — likely Thursday — before being sent to Snyder.

More than 15 people from around the state spoke against the bill in a disjointed committee meeting that spanned the morning and afternoon. Republican senators’ comments were punctuated by heckles from the audience while those who spoke animatedly against the bill were applauded.

Multiple speakers worried the bill would dramatically increase the resources and effort needed to land an issue on the ballot, and would disenfranchise voters in a given congressional district who signed petitions after the 15 percent threshold was reached.

“I expect that there will be amendments based on the testimony we’ve heard this morning,” said committee chair Sen. Dave Robertson, R-Grand Blanc, before voting to pass the bill.

Erica Peresman, an executive committee member of Promote the Vote, the group that gathered petitions to put the elections reform petition (Proposal 3) on the ballot, told the committee the GOP bill is “actually remarkably undemocratic.”

Ed Rivet, former legislative director of Right to Life, said he questions the bill’s constitutionality. Attorney Patrick Rose said he supports the rights of conservative and liberal causes alike to get on the ballot. He told Republican Senators, “you’re taking rights away from your core constituency.”

“I’m asking you please, protect our democracy, because your core constituents want you to do that,” Rose said.

The bill sponsor, Rep. Jim Lower, R-Cedar Lake, testified that the bill adds more transparency and accountability for voters. He highlighted some of the bill’s other requirements, such as that signature collectors indicate whether they’re paid or volunteer and the mandate for a 100-word summary to be printed on the petition.

John Bursch of the West Michigan Policy Forum also spoke in favor of the bill. “Michigan is one of about half of the states that have some kind of ballot initiative process,” he said. “But Michigan's rules, in terms of how they are exercised, are very lax.”

Bursch argued the current process invites out-of-state interests to dominate the ballot initiative process. Several other business groups including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Grand Rapids Chamber also support the bill.

The nitty gritty of new voting rights

Nearly 67 percent of Michiganders approved a proposal to enshrine a series of voting rights (which include, among other things, no-reason absentee voting and same day voter registration) into the state constitution.

Five Republican-sponsored bills aim to fill in the details of implementing those changes. Those bills passed out of a House committee Wednesday morning and will now move to the House floor. If they’re successful there, they too go to Snyder.

The bills would, among other things, require clerks to be at their office on election day to process same-day voter registration applications. They also would require the Secretary of State to create procedures for election audits and delete sections of election law that are now obsolete.

The committee’s Democrats raised concerns over whether or not the bill language would allow for local clerks to set up satellite offices for registering voters on election day, and questioned whether the language would (in the words of one Representative) “handcuff” the Secretary of State to one type of electoral audit.

Those who opposed the measures primarily raised concerns about the breakneck speed of the legislative process and urged Representatives to table the proposals until the spring when there’s more time to review the changes.  

Peresman of Promote the Vote told the committee the effort “completely defeats the purpose of Proposal 3” because it specifies policies the petition authors intentionally left vague: “It’s true the constitutional language is left not specific about some issues because we didn’t want the constitution to reflect matters that were going to evolve over time.”

Chair of the House Elections and Ethics committee, Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, told reporters after the hearing that the bill is a positive step in implementing the ballot proposal and that pinning down the best language is most important.

“I think we’ve done that today without a doubt,” he said. “I think it’s important because it concerns elections, it concerns implementation of something that needed implementation. So I think it’s a good thing we got it done and I’m going to push for an affirmative vote on the floor.”

Filling in the details on redistricting commission

Michiganders approved a constitutional amendment in November that calls for the creation of an independent citizens redistricting commission to draw legislative maps in the state. It is to replace the current practice of allowing the majority party in the state legislature to draw political boundaries.

Those who opposed the ballot proposal (including many business groups and Republicans) feared ambiguity over political affiliation of commission members could create room for partisan chicanery. The redistricting commission is to be made up of four Republicans, four Democrats and five independents — all self-identified.

SB 1254, which legislators now say is dead, would have defined what it means to be affiliated with a political party as someone who “adheres to or acts to further the purposes or objectives” of that party. If someone gave money to a party over the last six years, they would be “conclusively” affiliated with that party. The bill also bars those affiliated with political parties from providing services to the commission.

Critics of the Republican bill argued that the ballot proposal, by its very wording, was meant to be “self-executing.” That is, that the commission itself is to decide such matters, and that the clear intent of the ballot proposal was for politicians to butt out.  Among the most vocal were the leaders of Voters Not Politicians, the group that organized to put the proposal on the ballot. The group expressed relief that the GOP bill faltered.

“The legislature rightfully decided not to waste additional time on Senate Bill 1254, which illegally imposed unnecessary laws on the redistricting reform amendment,” said Voters Not Politicians president Nancy Wang in a statement. “We are prepared to defend the amendment from future legislation and court challenges.”

Miller told reporters Wednesday there was “general lack of support” for the bill, which is why committee members chose not to further consider it.  

“I think there were valid constitutional arguments (against the GOP bills), but I thought the policy in there was actually good,” Miller said.

The House Elections and Ethics committee will meet again Thursday morning, but Miller said he does not intend to bring the bill up for consideration, though he added: “I can’t speak on leadership and what they might do outside of my jurisdiction.”

Taking campaign finance oversight away from Secretary of State

SB 1250 and associated bills that failed to gather enough lame-duck support would have created a six-member commission of three Democrats and three Republicans responsible for overseeing campaign finance. That authority has been held by the Michigan Secretary of State.

For more than two decades the Michigan Secretary of State has been a Republican. In January, the office will be assumed by Democrat Jocelyn Benson, who has vowed to reform the state’s campaign finance system. The bill package to take oversight away from the office has been criticized by Democrats as a blatant attempt to seize power from Benson.

Miller said his committee would not vote to move the bills forward because they also faced a “lack of support,” (he wouldn’t elaborate) and that the bills “presented changes that would have been issues.”

Benson called the bill "hyper-partisan legislation” that would have hampered enforcement of Michigan's campaign finance law. She said she now looks “forward to collaborating with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on ways we can take Michigan from worst to first in ethics and transparency."

Robertson, the sponsor of the package, told reporters earlier this month that a bipartisan campaign finance commission had been discussed “for quite some time within our circles within the legislature” and dismissed criticisms that the timing of the bills indicated they are a power grab from Democrats.

“Frankly, I’m capable of inspiration at any particular moment in my career, including right now,” he told reporters then.

On Wednesday, Robertson was less voluble. As reporters sought comment after a Senate committee meeting, he walked briskly, flanked by fellow Senators, from the committee room to the sidewalk outside. He declined to speak.

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