Voting rights advocate calls recall petitions against state lawmakers ‘anti-democratic’

By: - July 22, 2023 8:25 am

The eight lawmakers who have had recall petitions filed against them: (clockwise): Reps. Reggie Miller, Cam Cavitt, Betsy Coffia, Sharon MacDonnell, Jaime Churches, Noah Arbit, Donni Steele and Jennifer Conlin.

The head of a nonpartisan group committed to voting rights is highly critical of petitions to recall state lawmakers, calling the effort a case of “sour grapes.” 

Earlier this week, the Advance reported recall petitions against six state representatives from Michigan, five Democrats and one Republican. 

And now two more petitions have been turned in seeking the recall of a sixth Democrat, state Rep. Noah Arbit of West Bloomfield, and a second Republican, state Rep. Donni Steele of Orion Township.

Jamie Lyons-Eddy, of Voters Not Politicians, speaks at a Lansing press conference for the Promote the Vote 2022 ballot initiative, July 11, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

Jamie Lyons-Eddy is the executive director of Voters Not Politicians (VNP), which spearheaded a 2018 initiative reforming redistricting in Michigan and a 2022 effort that expanded voting access across the state. 

“Let’s be clear, these recall efforts against duly elected legislators from both parties are anti-democratic,” she told the Michigan Advance. “Simply put, they are a waste of taxpayer money and distract lawmakers from what voters sent them to Lansing to do.”

Three petitions target state Reps. Jennifer Conlin (D-Ann Arbor), Reggie Miller (D-Belleville) and Jaime Churches (D-Wyandotte) for their yes votes on legislation to expand the definition of hate crimes to include violence on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, age and disability.

That was the same rationale for the petition turned in Wednesday against Arbit.

“I was notified by the Secretary of State that a recall petition was filed to remove me from office prior to the constitutional expiration of my term on December 31, 2024,” said Arbit in a statement. “The stated justification for recalling me is my vote to pass House Bill 4474, the Michigan Hate Crime Act, on June 20th. The petitioner is correct: not only did I vote for HB 4474; I wrote it and I sponsored it — in one of the proudest, most meaningful moments of my life. I will never apologize for fighting to protect ALL Michiganders from hate violence, and I will never be intimidated or cowed out of achieving my mission. I made a promise to the people of West Bloomfield, Commerce, and the Lakes. I promised that I would lead the fight against rising hate and extremism, and to relentlessly advocate for this community that I love. That is exactly what I have done in my first six months in office. And that is what I will continue to do as long as my community has confidence in me to represent them with faith and fidelity.” 

Arbit’s petition was filed by Gerald Clixby, 73, of West Bloomfield, according to the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office.

Misinformation spread by Fox News and other right-wing outlets falsely said the bills would criminalize using the wrong pronouns for a person, despite the fact that pronouns are not mentioned once in the legislation.

The bill would, however, expand Michigan’s hate crimes definition to include perpetration against individuals on the basis of their gender expression or sexual orientation. It would also raise the penalties on hate crimes, depending on the incident, to a five-year maximum prison sentence or a $10,000 fine, or both. Currently the law calls for a maximum of a two-year prison sentence or a $5,000 fine, or both.

Churches told the Advance that the petitions were a coordinated attack that served as a distraction from the real issues facing Michigan families. 

“It takes the focus away from the strong policies women legislators are working on,” she said. “I knew when I entered politics that we would face obstacles, but, at the end of the day, these strong policies are worth fighting for.”

Arbit concurred, calling the effort a “baseless, partisan recall designed to overturn the democratic will of the voters of West Bloomfield, Commerce, and the Lakes, and demonstrate the best of who we are: rooted, ready, and relentless.”

The recall petitions for Reps. Sharon MacDonell (D-Troy) and Betsy Coffia (D-Traverse City) cite their yes votes on the House’s version of “red flag” gun legislation to allow for judges to issue a temporary order for the removal of firearms for defendants that pose a significant threat to themselves or others. The red flag legislation coming from the Senate was signed into law, in addition to other gun law reforms in May.

Recall petitions filed against 5 Democratic, 1 Republican House members

Coffia told the Advance in an interview Thursday that the recall attempt wouldn’t “distract” her from her work.

“We’re gonna let it play out, really,” Coffia said. “Anyone has the right to file a recall petition, but I’m not going to allow it to distract me. We’ve already done some great work in the first six months like the rural equity funding for our schools, and I’m going to stay focused and keep doing the job I was elected to do. We’ll let it play out.”

MacDonell tweeted a response to the petitions, calling them a “last ditch effort to subvert democracy,” noting that the 102nd Michigan Legislature had passed more bills in the first six months than in the previous six years combined. 

“We are seeing a movement by some to disregard the will of the people by using recall procedures to disrupt our elections process,” said MacDonell. “I am grateful for the overwhelming support of the Democratic caucus and local community, and I can assure you that I will not be deterred from doing my job.”

Steele’s recall was also connected to gun reform, but in her case it was for her vote in favor of House Bill 4139, the House version of legislation requiring the safe storage of firearms.

House Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Richland Twp.) on Friday released a statement defending Steele.

“Rep. Donni Steele has emerged as a strong leader in Lansing,” he said. “As our lead addressing critical infrastructure needs, she’s been a fiscally responsible voice pushing to fix our crumbling roads and bridges in Oakland County and around the state. She’s focused on what matters for the district she represents. She has our full support, and we will defend her as we would any other member.”

Republican Rep. Cam Cavitt of Cheboygan had a recall petition filed against him last week, in his case citing his yes vote when the House elected Rep. Joe Tate (D-Detroit) to act as House speaker for the legislative session that began in January.

The recall efforts are “partisan tactics aimed at serving the interests of one political faction,” Cavitt said in an emailed statement. He added that rather than addressing critical priorities for his district and the state, the recall petitions will divert time and resources from making progress.

Ironically, while six of the eight targeted lawmakers are Democrats, it was Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder who signed GOP-led legislation in 2012 that added some extra hurdles to the process. 

That legislation followed the 2011 recall of former Rep. Paul Scott (R-Grand Blanc), who chaired the House Education Committee and came into the crosshairs of the Michigan Education Association (MEA) after pushing through teacher tenure reform. Scott ended up being recalled from office by less than 200 votes.

Gov. Rick Snyder, (R-MI), on  March 17, 2016 in Washington, DC. | Mark Wilson, Getty Images

The 2012 legislation Snyder signed beefed up the requirement that recall petition language had to be clear to mandating they be both clear and factual, which heightened the possibility that typos and misspellings could lead to rejection. It also shortened the signature-gathering period from 90 days down to 60 days. 

That means those seeking the recall will have to secure an amount of signatures that is at least 25% the number of votes cast for all candidates in the last governor’s race, within 60 days of the approval of the petition language by the Board of State Canvassers.

If successful, the petition would lead to a recall election at the next scheduled election.

Regardless, VNP’s Lyons-Eddy says the petitions are out of line with the spirit of the recall process.

“Yes, recalls are an important tool in a democracy, but voters know very well that they are intended for cases of criminal behavior or dereliction of duty,  not sour grapes about votes that someone doesn’t like,” she said. “In our democracy, the remedy for lawmakers who aren’t accurately representing the views of their constituents is the next election, which in the case of the Michigan House of Representatives is less than 18 months away.”

Advance reporter Lily Guiney contributed to this story.


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Jon King
Jon King

Jon King is the Senior Reporter for the Michigan Advance and has been a journalist for more than 35 years. He is the Past President of the Michigan Associated Press Media Editors Association and has been recognized for excellence numerous times, most recently in 2022 with the Best Investigative Story by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Cleary University. Jon and his family live in Howell.