Senate Tries To Seal Up MILegalize Elections Loophole
11 Feb, 2016
Technology update may make it easier to verify petition signatures; new bill is latest effort to impede citizen redress of government
photo caption: Lansing, Michigan, at dusk
“It’s a terrible sign of things to come as our democracy becomes even more the province of monied special interests.”
– Jeff Hank, Chair, MILegalize
by Rick Thompson/February 11, 2016
(disclosure: the author, Rick Thompson, is a Board member of the MILegalize organization.)
LANSING– An elections law update may make it easier for citizens to seek changes in law with initiatives and amendments via the petitioning process- including a marijuana legalization initiative. One Republican Senator is trying to nullify that elections law update, even before it happens.
A decision by the Michigan Board of State Canvassers (BOSC) is expected any day now that would change an outdated policy and use the existing electronic voter database to modernize the petition verification process. The update would give greater flexibility to signature collection campaigns and empower citizens to put more proposals on general elections ballots each November.
Senate Bill 776 was introduced by Sen. Dave Robertson (R-Grand Blanc Township) on Feb. 10. It would remove the ability of the State Board to certify any signatures on petitions that are not collected within a 180-day window.
Elections law currently allows for a rebuttal process to rehabilitate signatures obtained outside the 180-day window. Law and policy enforced by the Board of State Canvassers allows for the “stale” signatures to be certified as valid, provided it can be proven that a petition signer was registered to vote both at the time of the signature and during that 180-day period.
Modern technology makes this double verification simple, but the BOSC currently employs a procedure from the 1980’s involving paper forms and 83 county clerks.
Earlier this year petitioning groups, led by Michigan’s marijuana legalization organization, MILegalize, asked the BOSC to update their procedures and use the state’s computerized main voter file for verification. If approved, the policy change would give Michigan citizens a far greater period of time to collect signatures on petitions.
That decision would make it easier for petition drives to be successful, and citizens are trying to fix Michigan’s broken government without using the legislature in fantastic fashion. Recently state Republicans have been trying to make it more difficult, not easier, for people to enact change on their own.
In 2012, Governor Snyder signed a law that changed the time period to collect signatures on a recall petition from 90 days to 60 days. Recalling the Governor would require 789,133 valid signatures. Petitioner in 2012, Bruce Fealk, told MLive, “I don’t know how you could even hire enough people to get 16,000 (sic) signatures a day for 60 days…. That’s almost an impossible task.”
That monumental change from 2012 is disadvantaging citizen activists and paying dividends for the state’s embattled Republicans today.
On January 14 2016 the BOSC approved two petitions filed by different individuals to recall a single elected official, Senator Wayne Schmidt. In the last six months numerous petitions have been submitted to BOSC seeking the recall of many other Senators, including Majority Leader Sen. Arlan Meekhof.
As a result of the international news story surrounding the Flint Water Crisis, a number of attempts to recall Governor Snyder have been filed with the Board of State Canvassers. On February 8, 10 different Snyder recall petitions were considered by the BOSC and all but one were rejected; the accepted petition seeks recall due to educational decision made by the governor, not actions related to Flint.
The introduction of SB 776 has created a new round of criticism for the state’s top elected officials. “If the Senate wants to change the law, the more populist thing they could do is eliminate the 180 day requirement entirely,” said Detroit attorney and MILegalize Board member Matthew Abel. “Instead, we get this bill from Sen. Robertson.”
MIlegalize Chair, Jeffrey Hank, was more blunt with his criticism. “The depravity and mischief of some of our legislators knows no bounds,” he said. “It is deeply disturbing that Sen. Robertson would attempt to unconstitutionally restrict the period for circulating petitions, instead of working to prevent election fraud or solve any of the number of real electoral reforms that remain ignored.
“Attempting to foreclose participation in our democracy speaks volumes about priorities.”
The timing and language of Senator Robertson’s bill seems to assume the upcoming Board of State Canvassers policy decision will agree with arguments made by MILegalize and other petitioning groups, and is specifically crafted to eliminate that petitioning advantage.
“The introduction of SB 0776 bolsters our campaign’s argument that there really is a way to rebut the presumption,” observed Abel. “If that were not true, this bill would not be necessary.”
Others questioned the timing of the bill’s introduction, considering the source and the circumstance.
“I find it strange, if not repulsive, that a state Senator from an area currently experiencing a man-made tragedy has introduced a bill that would limit our citizens ability to directly address issues like the water crisis,” said Michigan ASA Chair Jamie Lowell. “SB 776 is designed to make the state wide ballot petitioning process more difficult.”
Sen. Robertson represents a district that falls just outside of the borders of Flint. Inside the city the water crisis is real; about 1,700 households have contacted a Detroit-area firm about joining a class-action case filed in November, per the Oakland Press.
“Instead of working to help his urban neighbors, Sen. Robertson finds the time to author this dubious and oppressive legislation,” Lowell challenged.
Prominent activists claim opposing SB 776 may be the only way to protect citizen participation in government during this time of conservative dominance in the Michigan House and Senate.
“The Michigan Legislature has serious contempt for the democratic process and fears the citizenry,” Hank said. “The inaction on cannabis prohibition, roads, Flint, you name it– proves more than ever why initiatory rights are so important.”
BOARD OF STATE CANVASSERS
Although the opportunity currently exists for signatures on petitions older than 180 days to be ‘rehabilitated’ and certified, it is rarely used. BOSC policy requires a paper affadavit from each county clerk certifying the eligibility of their voters at both times. The policy was developed in the 80’s, before computers were able to index information with modern technology.
The state uses a Qualified Voter File (QVF) to electronically verify voter registration. So do the county clerks, making the paper affadavit process an old-school leftover in need of an update.
That argument was presented to the BOSC earlier this year by leaders of the MILegalize campaign and other petition drives. The Board has been deliberating for several weeks, and a decision is expected at any time.
“This is all made possible by the creation of the Qualified Voter File,” said Brad Forrester, Board member of the Michigan chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “We should adopt policy that takes advantage of modern technology.”
If the Board decides to use the QVF, the verification of any voter’s eligibility at both required times will be as easy as clicking a mouse. Petition drives will be able to count signatures gathered in a larger time frame, making it easier and more affordable for petition drives to successfully place proposals on ballots and let the citizens bypass the legislature.
Should that occur, the 2016 state ballot would very likely have multiple proposals initiated by petition process for the people to vote on. In addition to the MILegalize effort to legalize the adult use of marijuana in Michigan, petition drives for anti-fracking, tax reform and prevailing wage issues could qualify for the November general election.
“The people of Michigan have some of the most inept legislators in the country,” Hank concluded, “and it’s up to the public to fix the problems these perfidious villains cannot.”
The effective date of Sen. Robertson’s bill, if passed, is January 1, 2017, so the MILegalize petition drive will not be impacted by this legislation.
The bill’s language is contained below.
SENATE BILL No. 776February 10, 2016Introduced by Senator ROBERTSON and referred to the Committee on Elections and Government Reform.A bill to amend 1954 PA 116, entitled “Michigan election law,” by amending section 472a (MCL 168.472a), as amended by 1999 PA 219.Note: all text appearing in BOLD and CAPS is proposed language contained in SB 776; all language appearing in small text would be eliminated by this bill.THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF MICHIGAN ENACT:1 Sec. 472a. It shall be rebuttably presumed that the THE2 signature on a petition that proposes an amendment to the3 constitution or is to initiate legislation , is stale and void4 SHALL NOT BE COUNTED if the signature was made more than 180 days5 before the petition was IS filed with the office of the secretary6 of state.7 Enacting section 1. This amendatory act takes effect January 1, 2017.