New petitions would enshrine voting rights, block Michigan lawmakers from circumventing voters
A number of Michigan groups are putting ballot initiatives to protect voting rights. | Ken Coleman
There is no shortage of voting-related ballot proposals for 2022 before the state panel authorized to approve them, with two of the newest ballot petition drives submitted to the Board of State Canvassers late last month.
“We’re trying to establish that the right to vote is number one in our Constitution, and you cannot undermine it with all kinds of excuses,” said Jan BenDor, a spokesperson for the Ypsilanti-based “MI Right to Vote” group and the statewide coordinator for the Michigan Election Reform Alliance.
According to the MI Right to Vote filings, the group submitted two petitions to the board of canvassers Jan. 20: A constitutional amendment regarding other initiative petitions, and a constitutional amendment to ensure the state Legislature does not enact any voter restriction measures.
Under MI Right to Vote’s first petition, “the Legislature will no longer be able to add appropriations to laws to prevent voters from exercising their right to approve or reject such laws” or accept laws proposed by a small percentage of voters which are shielded from the governor’s veto power.
Instead, all such laws would be placed on the ballot for all Michiganders to vote on.
Currently, Michigan has three types of petitions available for citizens to alter state laws or constitutional amendments.
The initiative petition, used to propose, enact or reject laws, requires 340,047 signatures of registered voters. The referendum petition, which is used to approve or reject laws enacted by the state Legislature, requires 212,530 signatures. The constitutional amendment requires 425,059 and is used to amend the state Constitution.
There are currently more than a dozen petitions that could appear on the ballot in November, if the state Legislature does not take them on first. Most have not yet been fully approved to gather signatures yet.
Out of 13 petitions, four have not yet been discussed by the board; five have been approved partially but cannot yet collect signatures; and four are in the process of collecting signatures.
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Under MI Right to Vote’s first proposal, the length of time for petition circulation would also be increased.
A common critique of Michigan’s petition system is that only a small percentage of voters need to sign on to enact a measure, which the GOP-led Legislature then has the power to potentially kill, water down, change fundamentally or enact right away without the governor’s signature.
BenDor calls this the “40-day sleepover” in the state Legislature. Upon the Board of State Canvassers determining that a petition contains enough valid signatures, the state Legislature then has 40 session days to act on it.
The MI Right to Vote team includes Michigan attorney Fred Green and Dr. Robert Sedler, a retired law professor and attorney who taught at Wayne State University’s Law School for four decades.
“The Michigan Constitution is very close to the people,” Sedler said in a Jan. 27 statement. “One of the proposed amendments explicitly makes the right to vote fundamental under that Constitution. The other amendment, among other things, would prevent the Legislature from interfering with the people’s right of referendum.
“It is clearly in the public interest for the people to adopt these amendments,” Sedler said.
The second constitutional amendment proposed by the group seeks to block efforts by the state’s Legislature that could hinder the right to vote.
The GOP-led body has brought up a number of bills and initiatives over the past year that Democrats and others have said would do just that, although Republicans claim the measures are meant to better secure the state’s voting systems.
The second MI Right to Vote proposal would amend the Michigan Constitution to “explicitly provide that the right to vote is a fundamental right and to prevent the Legislature from enacting any law that imposes an undue burden on the right to vote beyond the qualifications of citizenship, residence, age, and registration.”
It would also require that any law the state Legislature does enact on the basis of guarding against abuses of the electoral process be supported by “specific legislative findings, based on substantial evidence that any abuse it is intended to prevent has occurred or there is a substantial likelihood that it will occur.”
Michigan’s 2020 election was secure and no evidence of widespread fraud was detected, as Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has emphasized many times. More than a hundred audits were also conducted throughout the state and none returned back with any evidence to prove doubts about the election’s integrity.
Both proposals are scheduled to be brought up before the State Board of Canvassers on Feb. 11. If the language and format are deemed valid, the group would then be able to begin collecting signatures.
The deadline to collect enough signatures for constitutional amendment petitions is 5 p.m. on July 11. (Initiative petitions have until 5 p.m. on June 1; referendum petitions have until 90 days after the law in question is enacted).
“In Michigan we are fortunate to be one of the sixteen states that have the full rights of initiative and referendum, to ensure that ‘all political power is inherent in the people,’” BenDor said.
The initiative is separate from the “Promote the Vote 2022” measure filed Monday, which would enshrine a series of voting rights in the state’s constitution and bar partisan interference in future elections.
That measure is backed by the coalition behind Prop 3, the constitutional amendment passed by Michigan voters in 2018 which created no-reason absentee voting and same-day registration. It also has support from progressive groups like the League of Women Voters of Michigan.
BenDor says she and others behind MI Right to Vote reached out to Promote the Vote in an attempt to collaborate with them, but did not receive calls back. She criticized them for “refusing” to work with them and for “copycatting” one of the MI Right to Vote petitions.
Sharon Dolente, an attorney and voting rights strategist who serves as senior advisor for Promote the Vote, said in a phone call Thursday evening that MI Right to Vote is free to make their voice heard but emphasized that their own coalition has widespread progressive and grassroots support.
“As an organization that promotes democracy, Promote the Vote supports citizens using the proper things available to propose things to the Board of Canvassers and you know, seek signatures and seek to put things on the ballot if that’s what they so choose,” Dolente said.
“Promote the Vote doesn’t besmirch MI Right to Vote. They’re citizens and they can go and make their voice heard.”
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