Judge strikes down key provisions of ballot petition law

By: - September 27, 2019 3:10 pm

Voters cast their ballots at a polling station set up at Grady High School for the mid-term elections on November 6, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. | Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Michigan Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Stephens has struck down key parts of a GOP law that put restrictions on citizen-led ballot initiatives. 

Jocelyn Benson in Detroit, April 11, 2019 | Ken Coleman

Specifically, Stephens’ order in League of Women Voters of Michigan v. Jocelyn Benson on Friday struck a key part of the law passed last year that stipulates that no more than 15% of signatures on a ballot initiative can come from a single congressional district. 

The order also strikes down as unconstitutional a “check-box” requirement included in the law that mandates petitioners to disclose whether or not they are paid to gather signatures. 

Such provisions violate the state Constitution, Stephens wrote.

Benson is being sued in her official capacity as the state’s top elections chief, but has been critical of the law.

“As we’ve said previously, both the Michigan Constitution and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protect Michigan citizens’ right to amend our laws or state constitution through direct citizen petitions,” Benson spokesman Shawn Starkey said. “We are glad that today’s ruling upheld key portions of the attorney general’s opinion. As directed by the judge, we will continue to follow the guidelines of the entire attorney general’s opinion while the expected appeals proceed through court.”

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

Additionally, Stephens said that a lawsuit Republicans in the state House and Senate had against Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson related to the law lacks standing and will be dismissed.

The court did uphold a part of the law requiring paid petition circulators — but not volunteers — to sign affidavits with the secretary of state’s office. Stephens wrote that the affidavits provision “is less significant than the burden imposed by requiring a paid circulator to check a box that will be presented to voters.”

The judge’s opinion also finds that a related lawsuit by legislative Republicans against Benson lacks standing and will be dismissed.

Senate GOP spokeswoman Amber McCann said the chamber plans to appeal the opinion. A spokesman for House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) said the speaker had not reviewed the opinion. 

State Attorney General Dana Nessel authored an opinion earlier this year that found many of the same provisions unconstitutional.

Nessel declares Lame Duck law capping ballot signatures unconstitutional


In the opinion on Friday, Stephens writes that Michigan citizens have “reserved for themselves the power to amend the state’s constitution by initiative;” and “reserved the power to propose and enact statutes by initiative,” as well as “reserved the power to reject statutes by referendum.”

The GOP-backed law, now Public Act 608, was signed in late December 2018 by Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder, who left office due to term limits just days later. 

Snyder said at the time that he believes the new law “will promote geographic diversity in support of ballot proposals similar to the way gubernatorial candidates are required to have when they file for election.”

Gov. vetoes bill snatching Nessel’s power, signs ballot initiative limits

Friday’s ruling garnered accolades from Voters Not Politicians, the group that led the successful push for last year’s Proposal 2, establishing an independent redistricting commission.

“The Court’s opinion affirms the fact that, as our state Constitution states, ‘All political power is inherent in the people,’ and the people’s reserved right to petition our government by engaging in the initiative or referendum process cannot be limited, impaired, or hindered, as the Legislature sought to do through PA 608,” Nancy Wang, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Nick Manes
Nick Manes

Nick Manes is a former Michigan Advance reporter, covering West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels.