Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives her DNC address, Aug. 17, 2020 | Julia Picket photo
After a year of right-wing acrimony over Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s COVID-19 orders and legal turbulence over an effort to permanently strip some of her emergency powers, the controversial Unlock Michigan campaign prevailed Tuesday at getting its petition approved by the Board of State Canvassers.
The bipartisan panel had previously deadlocked on the petition along party lines in April, prompting Unlock Michigan to seek a court order. The Michigan Supreme Court ultimately ruled Friday that the canvassers have a duty to approve the petition.
Board of State Canvassers Chair Norman Shinkle and member Tony Daunt, both Republicans, voted to adopt the GOP-connected Unlock Michigan petition along with Democratic Vice Chair Julie Matuzak. Member Jeannette Bradshaw, the second Democrat on the board, was absent so a three-member unanimous vote was necessary to adopt all motions.
With the petition to permanently repeal a 76-year-old law that granted emergency powers to Whitmer for the first stretch of the COVID-19 pandemic now greenlit by the board, the initiative now heads to the GOP-led Legislature. If approved by lawmakers, which is likely, it will not go before voters and Whitmer has no veto power.
The law in question that Unlock Michigan seeks to topple is the 1945 Emergency Powers of the Governor Act (EPGA). Whitmer leaned on that and one other long-held state law to issue emergency orders during the first several months of Michigan’s COVID-19 outbreak.
A narrow GOP majority of the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in October that the EPGA is unconstitutional as a law, although interpreted correctly in practice by Whitmer. Unlock Michigan continued forward with its campaign regardless, to — in the words of spokesperson Fred Wszolek — “kill the 1945 law … [and] keep it dead.”
The Keep Michigan Safe group, which opposes Unlock Michigan, released a statement Tuesday describing the petition as “illegal” and decrying the board’s approval.
“We urge lawmakers in both parties to reject Unlock Michigan’s illegal tactics and corrupt conduct which completely undermines the integrity of our elections,” said spokesperson Mark Fisk.
“Unlock Michigan’s brazen partisan power grab will further reduce our state’s ability to save lives during public health emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic and handcuff future generations of leaders from acting decisively in times of crises.”
The conservative effort turned in nearly 540,000 signatures in October.
“We’re looking forward to the next and final step on this long road: passage by the Michigan House and Senate of our initiative to repeal this law so abused by Governor Whitmer,” Wszolek said in an email.
The panel took up other agenda items during the meeting, but punted on a petition aimed at protecting LGBTQ+ Michiganders since challengers of the effort had submitted additional filings late Monday night that could not be considered in time.
Fair and Equal Michigan, the LGBTQ+ advocacy organization leading the measure, geared up with a pre-meeting virtual press conference to oppose opponents’ allegations of numerous invalid signatures, board members chose to delay action until later this month due to last-minute filings.
Fair and Equal Michigan’s petition seeks to amend the state’s Elliott-Larsen civil rights act to expand anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ residents. It was circulated last year, despite complications in gathering signatures during COVID-19 and submitted on Oct. 13.
On Friday, the Bureau of Elections released a report stating that the group did not gather enough valid signatures. Fair and Equal Michigan needs 340,047 valid signatures to move forward with the effort; the bureau estimated after a random sample that only 298,943 signatures in that pool were valid.
Fair and Equal Michigan argues this is incorrect and there are deficiencies in the Bureau’s report that have led to the expulsion of valid signatures.
“We have reviewed these allegedly defective signatures over the last several days, and different and harsher standards are being applied to these signatures than we have ever seen before,” attorney Mark Brewer said during the group’s press conference Tuesday ahead of the canvassers meeting.
The Board of State Canvassers was set to take up the petition on Tuesday, but ultimately delayed any action because of late-night filings by an opposing group. The group, called “Citizens for Equality, Fairness and Justice,” had challenged the petition on June 3 but submitted another filing questioning 17 additional signatures late Monday night.
Bureau of Elections Director Jonathan Brader said he did not have time to review the new filings and could therefore not amend his report appropriately before the meeting. Shinkle, Matuzak and Daunt all voted to bump consideration of the petition to the board’s next meeting on July 26, with a deadline of 5 p.m. Friday to submit additional materials and a response from Fair and Equal Michigan due on Monday.
Also on the board’s Tuesday’s docket was a petition by Chad Baase of Albion to recall Whitmer. After some debate on the wording and intent of the petition’s language, the measure ultimately failed to pass the board because of Matuzak’s opposing vote.
State Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) also made a brief virtual appearance before board members to speak about his committee report that found no evidence of widespread election fraud. All three members thanked McBroom for his report, and the senator addressed several questions from Shinkle about vote counting in Detroit’s TCF Center and in Antrim County, both of which have been the subject of several right-wing conspiracy theories.
“I just want to thank you and the committee for having the courage to do this report, to put the information out there without leaning on the scales, having the courage to stand up against the malignancy that is [former President] Donald Trump and the people who have lacked the courage to stand up to him for the last six months,” Daunt said.
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