A fundamental component of our democracy is the citizen-led ballot initiative and for the 2016 November elections, the Legalize Michigan coalition has been collecting signatures to place a comprehensive, safe, and fair marijuana legalization initiative on the November ballot; while the equally concerted efforts of the Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan has pressed equally hard to protect our state against the environmentally costly and damaging process of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.
Both the pro-marijuana and anti-fracking groups are relatively close to the 252,523 valid signatures needed to get these issues on the state’s November ballot, but they have one problem: some of the signatures are too old.
Current Michigan law states signatures for citizen-led ballot initiatives need to be collected over a period of 180 days, but signatures collected beyond that 180-day window can still be allowed, provided the groups collecting signatures verify them.
However, the verification process itself is dated and stems back to a 1986 Michigan Supreme Court decision that requires groups to present actual physical affidavits from each person signing a ballot petition, stating that each signer was registered to vote at that time.
In order to clarify and expedite this verification process, attorney and marijuana activist Jeff Hank asked the state Board of Elections to allow older signatures to be verified through the state’s electronic database of registered voters, called the Quality Voter File.
The state began using the Qualified Voter File (QVF) in 1998. Clerks from Michigan's 83 counties, 277 cities, 1,240 townships and 256 villages input registration information on voters within their locality to a centralized server in Lansing. The database tracks changes to the state's 7.4 million-plus registered voters and eliminates reams of paperwork involved in managing the electorate.
The Board of Elections agreed with this process, noting that the Michigan State Constitution already allows use of the QVF to determine the validity of petition signatures, so in December the Board formally asked the State Board of Canvassers to consider clarifying their policy to allow this verification process through the QVF.
But as with many under-staffed departments of our Michigan government such as the DEQ, the Board of Canvassers is a four-person panel comprised of two Democrats and two Republicans that has been busy these days wading through petitions to recall Governor Rick Snyder, filed by citizens upset over the handling of the Flint water crisis.
Although neither group has filed their petitions with the state yet, the 180-day rule is being re-legislated, as I write this, to block them both.
The state’s Republican lawmakers are trying to change the rules in the middle of the game. While not opposing marijuana legislation or fracking bans outright – they are moving to change election law to make it harder for citizen groups to let their issues be placed on the ballot in the first place.
And in the process, as the Board of Canvassers are currently deciding this policy clarification, Republican lawmakers have decided to intervene and completely derail these two pivotal ballot proposals.
Concerned that anti-fracking & pro-marijuana advocates may indeed get enough valid signatures to place these measures on the ballot, back in February state Sen. David Robertson proposed a new law stating petition signatures older than 180 days cannot be considered toward a citizen led ballot initiative, regardless of the circumstances.
As reporter Emily Atkin writes: “The Legislature stepped in and said, okay, let’s just change the law and get rid of the opportunity to even allow [old] signatures to even be considered,” Craig Theil, a senior research associate at the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan, told ThinkProgress. “Let’s have a hard and fast 180-day window.”
So far Senate Bill #776 has moved quickly, passing the Republican led-Senate with a 70 percent supermajority on March 10th. On Friday, March 25th it was being considered in the House of Representatives and could come to a vote on Monday and placed on Governor Snyder’s desk next week for signature.
The timing on this is blatantly political and unfair - if you want to change the rules, you don’t do it in the middle of a game; and this is why both the pro-marijuana and anti-fracking groups vow to both pursue the issue in Court should Republicans continue to move forward with this measure.
Specifically, this onerous move threatens the very future of democracy in Michigan. Already the process of ballot initiative is difficult and expensive, especially if you have only six months to get nearly 300,000 signatures; and grassroots groups are historically not well-funded. Indeed, only 14 citizen-led legislative initiatives have reached the state ballot since 1913, and only 8 of those succeeded.
As Senator Steve Bieda stated in his opposition on the Senate Floor: “I rise today to offer my “no” vote explanation for Senate Bill No. 776. Once again, the majority is trying to make it more difficult for citizens to be heard. Everyone in this room knows that it’s extremely challenging to overcome a rebuttal presumption, but it is possible. And that possibility, however slim, gives people a slightly better chance to get their issue on the ballot. That’s their opportunity to make a change when their elected official can’t or won’t do it for them.
By shutting down that possibility for good, we’d be slamming the door on our constituents. But that’s what this chamber is interested in, isn’t it? In the past year, this chamber has opened doors to dark money. It’s used legislative loopholes to referendum-proof unpopular laws. It’s made it more challenging for our constituents to vote the way they want in a manner that respects their time. Let’s be honest here—a “yes” vote isn’t to clarify existing law; it’s to halt policy changes that would make it easier to use signatures collected beyond the 180-day window.”
Interestingly enough, this legislation has the support of The American Petroleum Institute, The Michigan Oil & Gas Association, and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.
Meanwhile, Hanks has vowed if the bill is signed into law he would launch a lawsuit against the state, as he argues this latest maneuver violates the state constitution and lawmakers should not be able to change the petition process in the middle of an ongoing signature campaign.
If you care about democracy in Michigan, I urge you to contact your representatives in Lansing immediately and express your opposition to this latest round of harmful shenanigans.