UPDATE: Reform groups seeking to launch petition drives later this year filed a legal complaint on Thursday challenging a law that makes it more difficult to gather signatures for statewide ballot measures. That move piggybacks on Attorney General Dana Nessel’s legal opinion targeting the same law. Thursday’s legal challenge was filed by the League of Women Voters of Michigan and Michiganders for Fair and Transparent Elections, which want to launch a campaign finance ballot drive, and two voters, the Associated Press reported. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson is the defendant. Michigan Advance has all the details here.
Republican lawmakers have failed in a bid to change the way Michigan petition signatures are collected, they continue to pursue alterations to the anti-gerrymandering ballot proposal approved by voters last November, and they’re defending a court challenge to the way they circumvented 2018 petition drives that sought to boost the minimum wage and paid sick leave.
All of these political battles may ultimately be decided by the state Supreme Court.
The first decision was made Wednesday by state Attorney General Dana Nessel (above) who struck down as unconstitutional several sections of a new law, including the main provision that says a statewide petition drive can collect no more than 15 percent of its signatures within any one of Michigan’s 14 congressional districts.
The Republican-controlled Legislature adopted the law during last December’s frenzied lame duck session after lawmakers concluded that the ballot proposal process had become dominated by liberal communities and groups in southeast Michigan.
The bill was introduced a month after last November’s elections, which saw the approval by Michigan voters of ballot measures legalizing recreational marijuana, creating an independent redistricting commission for the state, and liberalizing various voting laws.
Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson shortly after taking office requested that Nessel’s AG office review the law, citing concerns about its legality. Nessel, Benson and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer led the way in January when a new crop of Democratic officials took office.
Benson also stands at the middle of another controversy involving initiative/referendum procedures as the Senate and House appear ready to scuttle a portion of Proposal 2, the November 2018 initiative that took away from the Legislature the process of redrawing election districts.
The wording of the proposal, which voters approved by a wide margin, established that the secretary of state would take over administration of the redistricting process and the Legislature would provide her with sufficient funds to handle that additional task.
However, in recent weeks the Senate approved a budget that would cut $2 million from the secretary of state’s office for election matters. The House is moving in the same direction, including consideration of putting the new redistricting commission’s operating funds under the jurisdiction of the Legislature.
Voters Not Politicians, the nonpartisan group that organized the Proposal 2 ballot drive, issued this statement:
“Voters are tired of politicians doing whatever they can to maintain their own power at the expense of the voters they are supposed to represent. We will continue to hold these politicians accountable so they pass a budget that upholds the will of the voters by properly funding an impartial and transparent redistricting process and fair and secure elections.”
A third dispute over petitions is now under review by the state Supreme Court. At issue is the manner in which the Legislature “gutted” two petition gathering efforts that each collected more than 400,000 signatures to establish a new minimum wage and new sick leave rules.
Rather than letting the two measures go to the ballot, the House and Senate passed them into law in September then began altering them as the lame duck season approached.
The minimum wage proposal was altered so that the proposed $12 minimum will not kick in for 11 years, rather than the petition drive’s plan for a gradual increase to that level in 2022. As for the earned-benefit for sick leave, the ballot proposal would have guaranteed all workers up to 40 hours of paid sick leave per year, based on hours worked. But the lame duck bill provided an exclusion that would apply to any small company with fewer than 50 employees — more than 160,000 Michigan businesses that collectively employ more than 1 million workers.
Last month, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that challenges the Republican changes to the two laws. But the state’s high court has only granted a review of the case, with the justices stopping short of saying they will issue a ruling.
With the matter under a legal cloud, Nessel will submit legal briefs to the court summarizing both sides of the issue. The justices will hear oral arguments in July.
After the 2018 elections, the court’s partisan makeup narrowed to a 4-3 edge for the Republicans. But, in an unusual move, the justices unanimously voted in January to make their colleague Bridget McCormack, a Democrat, the new chief justice.
That turnabout makes the court a relatively bipartisan group as a number of partisan issues will be coming at them in the coming months.