LANSING, MI – Michigan’s next round of ballot petitions would face a number of new requirements under legislation approved along partisan lines in the House Elections and Ethics Committee on Wednesday.
House Bill 6595, introduced last week, makes a number of changes to procedures around ballot petitioning in Michigan. The biggest change is a proportionality requirement that would prohibit petitions from getting more than 10 percent of their signatures from any one congressional district. In the event Michigan loses a congressional seat, that ceiling would go up to 15 percent.
Bill sponsor Rep. James Lower, R-Cedar Lake, said he is from a rural area, and the 10 percent requirement would mean petitions get input from all over the state and improve the petition process.
“Ultimately, if something is put on the ballot, we can feel more confident that it has buy-in from a greater distribution of voters,” Lower said.
But other people took issue with the provision.
Sharon Dolente, voting rights strategist at ACLU of Michigan, said the state constitution already says who is required to sign: registered electors of the state. Putting more requirements on top of that, she said, could run into legal trouble. In at least one other state, she said, “The geographic distribution requirements have been successfully challenged and stuck down.”
Attorney John Bursch spoke in support of the bill on behalf of the West Michigan Policy Forum, saying constitutionally the 10 percent distribution ceiling was safest.
But the 10 percent distribution provision could run into practical limitations as well, according to testimony from Secretary of State Director of Government Affairs Mike Batterbee.
As Rep. Jeremy Moss, D-Livonia, explained, the Secretary of State currently determines if there are enough valid signatures by pulling a sample, not by counting every signature.
“When you submit 400,000 signatures, they’re not going ‘1, 2, 3, 4…’ they take a sample,” Moss said.
So what happens if the sample is all from one congressional district, he asked?
The Secretary of State isn’t exactly sure, said Batterbee, but it could involve handing each petition sheet – and sometimes there are tens of thousands of them – multiple times.
“It’s all done by hand. So, in order to do this, we must count them all,” Batterbee said.
The Secretary of State does have concerns about pulling a random sample with this in place, he said.
Other changes in the bill include moving up the timeline so the Board of State canvassers would have to rule on a petition’s sufficiency by the July 1 before the election, requiring any legal challenges to directly to the Supreme Court within three days, requiring a 100-word summary earlier in the process and requiring circulators to file signed affidavits indicating whether they’re paid or volunteers.
Representatives from both the ACLU of Michigan and Right to Life of Michigan expressed concerns with having to file in court within three days of a Board of State Canvassers decision.
“We’re not a law firm, so that could be a problem,” said Right to Life Legislative Director Genevieve Marnon.
Right to Life has collected over a million signatures for a number of ballot petitions, Marnon said, most recently for the abortion insurance opt-out in 2013. It’s a very grassroots effort, she said, and some of their volunteers who just collect signatures from a few people the know might be turned off by the idea that they would have to file and affidavit and end up on a petition circulator list at the Secretary of State office.
“I think it’s going to deter a whole lot of people,” she said.
The bill gained committee approval 6-3, with Democrats voting against it. The committee turned down an amendment from Moss that would have replaced the cap on signatures from each congressional district with a floor of at least 3 percent from each congressional district.
Committee Chair Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, said he’s open to considering more changes as the bill moves through the process.
“I think that there were plenty of issues that got presented today, some of which have merit. So I’m happy to support changes in the full House,” said Miller, saying he supported the bill and the idea of making changes to the ballot petition process.
The bill heads next to the full House, which could vote on it the same day. It would need to pass the full House and Senate, plus get a signature from Gov. Rick Snyder, to become law.
The ballot petition process is laid out in the Michigan constitution, and is often used by groups seeking changes. This year petitions to legalize recreational marijuana, change Michigan’s redistricting process and expand voting access gathered enough signatures to get on the ballot. Two more efforts, to raise the minimum wage and put paid sick time requirements in place, gathered enough signatures to make the ballot but were adopted by the legislature instead.