Appeals court tosses key GOP ballot measure restrictions

Signatures can’t be limited by congressional district

By: - January 27, 2020 8:24 pm

Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

A Court of Appeals panel on Monday struck down a key part of a GOP law clamping down on Michigan’s ballot question process after voters passed three progressive measure in 2018.

Public Act 608 of 2018 was passed by the Republican-led Legislature during Lame Duck and was signed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder.

The most controversial part of the law was the requirement that no more than 15% of signatures for citizen-led petitions can come from a single congressional district. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson last January asked Attorney General Dana Nessel to issue an opinion on the law. In May, Nessel declared parts of it unconstitutional, including the 15% cap.

The case is League of Women Voters v. Secretary of State, which was filed in May 2019. The Michigan Senate and House of Representatives also filed a complaint in June and the cases were consolidated in the Court of Claims.

The COA panel struck the 15% signature provision down.

“Setting a 15% geographic limitation serves to take power out of the hands of the people and requires, in essence, a pre-vote of agreement in a certain number of congressional districts as to whether or not a matter should be put to a general vote. This places the cart before the horse and unduly burdens the initiative and petition process,” the judges wrote.

The judges noted the Legislature’s argument that the 15% cap in congressional districts would “promote geographic diversity,” something Snyder touted while signing the law.

“Although the Legislature indicates that its goal in enacting the 15% limit was to ensure participation from voters in the entire state, participating in the voting process is a right held by the people ― not an obligation to be forced upon them by some means,” the judges wrote. “And the 15% cap violates the rights of Michigan electors to participate in the electoral process by potentially excluding some from the petition process.”

In 2018, voters passed measures legalizing recreational marijuana, establishing an independent redistricting commission and expanding voting rights.

The COA panel also struck down provisions that identified circulators on petitions if they were being paid and required them to file an affidavit.

“The Legislature has not shown that the state’s interests are furthered by the disclosure requirement, which singles out only paid circulators and burdens the sponsors’ political speech by imposing a requirement that circulators must file an affidavit before obtaining signatures. The affidavit requirement is thus unconstitutional,” the judges wrote.

The COA panel said that the law could still stand without the parts it ruled unconstitutional.

This follows a September ruling by Michigan Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Stephens, which struck down the 15% signature limit and the “check-box” requirement for paid circulators on petitions.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 21-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 4,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 70 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.