Politics

Michigan Republicans Are Trying To Change Election Law To Stop Liberal Ballot Initiatives

CREDIT: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

Graham Lowe, an instructor at Med Grow Cannabis College in Southfield, Mich., holds examples of three types of marijuana buds in his class.

Grassroots groups in Michigan say they’re about to achieve something big. This year, if they get enough petition signatures, voters might get to decide at the ballot box whether to ban fracking and legalize marijuana.

There’s just one problem: the state’s Republican lawmakers are now trying to change the rules in the middle of the game.

The lawmakers aren’t opposing marijuana legalization or fracking bans on their merits — they’re trying to change election law to make it harder for citizen groups to get their issues on the ballot in the first place. Their bill to change citizen lawmaking in Michigan has so far been supported by the American Petroleum Institute, the Michigan Oil and Gas Association, and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

It could land on Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk as soon as this week.

“They are trying to stop [us] cold,” said LuAnne Kozma of the Committee to Ban Fracking In Michigan. “They are trying to cut us off and force us into court.”

‘Let’s just change the law and get rid of the opportunity’

Both the pro-marijuana and anti-fracking groups in Michigan say they are relatively close to achieving the 252,523 valid signatures they need to get their respective issues on the state’s ballot in 2016.

They have one problem, though: Some of their signatures are too old. Michigan election law states that all signatures for citizen-led ballot initiatives need to be collected over a period of only 180 days. The law also states that signatures can still be counted if they’re older than 180 days, but only if the groups verify them. And the verification process is onerous — the groups have to get individual physical affidavits from each person who signed, stating that they were registered to vote at the time.

So, for the last six months, the groups have been trying to clarify the verification process. Last year, attorney and marijuana activist Jeff Hank asked the state Board of Elections to allow older signatures be verified through the state’s electronic database of registered voters, called the Qualified Voter File. That, Hanks said, would make it easier to verify their older signatures.

The Board of Elections agreed with Hanks, noting that the Michigan state Constitution allows use of the Qualified Voter File “to determine the validity of petition signatures.” In December, the Board of Elections formally asked the State Board of Canvassers to consider clarifying their policy to allow older signatures to be verified through the electronic Qualified Voter File system. The Board of Canvassers is currently deciding on this policy.

Here’s where the state Republican lawmakers come in. Confronted with the possibility that the Board on Canvassers might say yes — that anti-fracking and pro-marijuana advocates might actually achieve enough valid signatures to get their issues on the ballot — lawmakers decided to preempt them. In February, state Sen. David Robertson proposed a law stating that petition signatures older than 180 days cannot be considered toward a citizen-led ballot initiative, no matter what.

“The Legislature stepped in and said, okay, let’s just change the law and get rid of the opportunity to even allow [old] signatures to even be considered,” Craig Theil, a senior research associate at the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan, told ThinkProgress. “Let’s have a hard and fast 180 day window.”

Impacts beyond fracking and marijuana

So far, the bill has moved quickly. It passed the Republican-led Senate with a 70 percent supermajority one month after it was proposed, and on March 10, it headed to the House. It is expected to pass there as well, and land on Gov. Snyder’s desk as soon as this week.

Obviously, pro-marijuana and anti-fracking advocates aren’t happy about this. And they have good reason — Theil said it’s almost certain that the bill was proposed specifically to make sure the two initiatives don’t pass.

“Given the timing of the proposed change in policy, there’s no way that this is not intended to disrupt the possibility of adopting those policy changes,” he said.

But Hanks said the bill threatens far more than just fracking and marijuana policy. It threatens the future of citizen lawmaking in Michigan. Already, he said, the process to get ballot initiatives is difficult — for one, it’s expensive to try and get nearly 300,000 signatures in a period of six months, and grassroots groups like his own are historically not well-funded. Indeed, only 14 citizen-led legislative initiatives have reached the state ballot since 1913, and only eight of those succeeded.

Taking away the process for verifying petition signatures older than 180 days, he said, would make that process even more burdensome.

“If we lose this right, then we have no recourse really,” he said. “It’s going to be much harder to get issues on the ballot here.”

The groups will sue — ‘That’s a promise’

If the bill is signed into law, Hanks said he would launch a lawsuit against the state — “One hundred percent, that’s a promise,” he said. Hanks argued the proposed law violates the state constitution, and that lawmakers shouldn’t be able to change the petition process in the middle of an ongoing signature campaign.

If he’s able to win — and the marijuana law makes it on to the ballot — Hanks said he not only believes marijuana would be legalized in Michigan, but more citizen groups would be empowered to mobilize, get petition signatures, and force people to vote on critical issues in the state.

“If we do this, and people see that, ‘Hey, the stoners did it,’ and that we were well enough organized to make the ballot, you’re going to have other citizen groups that say, we can do this too,” Hanks said.