Michigan House panel advances bill to restrict ballot drives

Associated Press

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Despite opposition from across the political spectrum, a Republican-controlled Michigan legislative committee voted Wednesday to curtail ballot drives by limiting how many signatures could come from geographic regions.

The move by the House Elections and Ethics Committee was the latest to be assailed by critics as an unconstitutional infringement on voters, a week after GOP lawmakers maneuvered to significantly scale back minimum wage and paid sick leave laws that began as ballot initiatives but were adopted before the election so it would be easier to change them in the lame-duck session. Voters last month passed three ballot proposal to legalize marijuana for recreational use, overhaul redistricting and expand voting options.

The new legislation could clear the Republican-led House later in the day before moving to the GOP-controlled Senate. It would affect ballot committees initiating constitutional amendments, bills and referendums by capping the number of signatures that could come from an individual congressional district at 10 percent. There is no geographic threshold currently. Petition circulators also would have to file an affidavit with the state saying if they are a paid or volunteer signature gatherer.

The measure was backed by business groups that said it would prevent fraud, better inform voters and require widespread support for statewide ballot proposals often funded by out-of-state interests. It was opposed, however, by Democrats and organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees labor union and Right to Life of Michigan.

The 10 percent threshold would be an “administrative nightmare,” said Genevieve Marnon, legislative director for the anti-abortion group, which has successfully organized several ballot initiatives over the years.

“But more importantly I don’t know that our volunteers at Right to Life of Michigan really want all of their names and addresses listed on a search database at the secretary of state,” she said. “I think it’s going to deter a whole lot of people from volunteering to do this.”

Erica Peresman, a volunteer who helped collect signatures for the voting initiative that was approved by voters last month, blasted the legislation.

“It’s about putting up obstacles on top of the very significant signature requirement and petition rules that already exist to make it more expensive, more difficult and more burdensome for citizens like me to participate in the democratic process,” she said. “I think this bill is remarkably undemocratic.”

But John Bursch, a lawyer speaking on behalf of a number of business organizations, said 16 other states have similar requirements, including four that specify signature limits by congressional district.

“I’m confident that if Florida could get this right that Michigan could get it right, too,” he said.

The bill sponsor, Republican Rep. James Lower of Cedar Lake, said the state’s initiative petition law is in “desperate need of updating” and Michigan must “get more in the times with 2018.”

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