Nessel opens criminal investigation into anti-Whitmer ballot group

By: - September 28, 2020 4:53 pm

“Unlock Michigan” petition booth at the Second Amendment March at the Capitol, Sept. 17, 2020 | Laina G. Stebbins

Attorney General Dana Nessel announced Monday that she will open an investigation into the GOP-linked coalition Unlock Michigan, following complaints that the group’s signature gatherers may have engaged in criminal activity to gather more signatures.

Unlock Michigan’s petition drive, if successful, would repeal the 1945 Emergency Powers of Governor Act (EPGA) that Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has used as a legal backbone for her executive orders during Michigan’s COVID-19 outbreak.

Last week, the Detroit Free Press reported on a secret recording of Unlock Michigan trainer Erik Tisinger encouraging signature collectors to use illicit methods to get more signatures. Nessel’s statement Monday notes that her office has received numerous other complaints from residents alleging that they were deceived by the group’s petition circulators.

“Our democracy is firmly rooted in the principles of an informed electorate which makes decisions at the polls based on reason and beliefs over lies and deception,” said Nessel, a Democrat. “Our ballot initiative process allows efforts with strong public support to be presented to the Legislature. But that process becomes tainted when petition circulators manipulate and cheat to serve their own agendas. My office will investigate these allegations, and if there is a violation of law, we will prosecute those responsible.”

Unlike many other states, Michigan currently has no rules preventing unethical behavior from petition circulators.

Nessel’s announcement comes just days after the League of Women Voters of Michigan (LWV), a nonpartisan voter education group, sent a letter to her office asking her to look into the group’s signature-gathering tactics. Michigan election lawyer John Pirich had also asked Nessel and Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to look into “possible illegalities” by Unlock Michigan the day before.

Unlock Michigan spokesperson Fred Wszolek said in an email Monday that Nessel “should investigate Erik Tisinger,” the man caught on the tape encouraging elicit signature-gathering tactics, but “that investigation has nothing to do with our petition submission.”

“All of the signatures collected by that subcontractor since the Tisinger training captured on video have been excluded from our submission. Investigating this bad actor has nothing to do with more than 500,000 people exercising their constitutional right to initiate legislation for a prompt vote by the Legislature,” Wszolek said.

Unlock Michigan has reportedly collected 500,000 signatures so far, which exceeds the 340,047 valid signatures of registered Michigan voters it needs to gather within 180 days. The measure will go to the GOP-led state Legislature for approval if the Bureau of Elections certifies enough signatures.

The group plans to submit the signatures Friday.

If the state Legislature approves the initiative, Whitmer would not have veto power. This may not go to the Legislature this term, however, as Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office says it usually takes 105 days to review petitions, which would be past when this term ends on Dec. 31. The measure would go before voters if the state Legislature passes on it. 

Nancy Wang, Executive Director of the government reform group Voters Not Politicians, released a statement Monday in support of Nessel’s investigation. The group spearheaded Proposal 2 of 2018 that established an independent redistricting commission.

“We’re offended by the cynical and unscrupulous tactics Unlock Michigan is alleged to have taken. The work of Voters Not Politicians shows the power of the people and why direct democracy is so crucial to the health of our democracy,” Wang said.

“… Those who lie, cheat, and abuse our initiative process undermine the public trust and threaten the ability of citizens groups like VNP to legitimately petition our government, as is our right under the Michigan Constitution. They also provide ammunition to legislators who seek excuses to weaken the people’s right to engage in direct democracy. … Groups like these must be weeded out to protect the integrity of our initiative process,” Wang continued.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).