Some will truthfully explain the contents of the petition, some will tell half-truths, some will lie outright. Legally, state law doesn't address what the circulators can say, so it's incumbent upon people who are approached to sign the petition to actually read the petition.
"They will say anything to get you to sign. Don’t reward the fraud!" said IBEW Local 58 Recording Secretary/Registrar Jeannette Bradshaw, who also sits on the state Board of Canvassers. "The only requirement of the circulator is to witness the signature."
This year the state Board of Canvassers has approved language for three petitions that are currently circulating around the state. One would repeal the state's Prevailing Wage Act. Another would shut down the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac. A third would basically regulate marijuana like alcohol. And there are other petitions whose language has not yet been approved by the Board of Canvassers, such as Lt. Gov. Brian Calley's proposal to make Michigan legislators work part-time.
"You walk out of a grocery store and you're approached by a nice person in the parking lot who seems pretty honest, you might sign their petition based on what they say is in it, which could be a lie," Bradshaw said. "And you might be signing a petition to repeal prevailing wage. You have to read what you're signing."
For the record, the small type on the first line atop the repeal petition begins by saying it is "An initiation of legislation to repeal 1965 PA 166, entitled 'An act to require prevailing wages and fringe benefits on state projects....'"
Two campaigns underwritten by the Associated Builders and Contractors' front group Protect Michigan Jobs and their big-money backers, mostly from the Devos family of Grand Rapids, have failed in the past two years to gain the 252,000 petition signatures necessary to put the prevailing wage repeal question before the state Legislature. In 2015, some 43 percent of the 390,000 names gathered by the Nevada-based company hired to circulate the petitions were found to be invalid, with about 50,000 duplicate signatures.
Outside of the construction industry, the state's prevailing wage law is fairly obscure, but that doesn't make it less important to the state's Hardhats and the building industry. Still, the clipboard holders are saying just about anything to get you to sign, so they can earn their bounty of perhaps $5 per signature. Bradshaw said there was likely outright fraud, but she suspects another reason there were so many duplicate signatures in the 2015 effort was that signers honestly didn't believe they were signing the petition more than once, because of the changing explanations of the contents given by the various signature takers.
A "Decline to Sign" Facebook advertisement sponsored by the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council this month gave rise to comments from a number of encounters in recent weeks with the signature-takers.
"I was approached at the Secretary of State office, by a young woman who said this was a petition for more well paid jobs in Michigan," wrote one. "I asked who she was soliciting for... and she said she was an independent contractor. I read the language and it was easy to decline to sign! Again, the right wing is paying poor people to work against their own self interest, and prepping them with dishonest scripts."
Wrote another: "I had a guy tell me it will help the little guy out. I laughed at him and told him to get out of here."
And another: "I ran into one of those today...when I told the circulator what it was for, she was very upset...she didn't know that it was union busting, was told that it was about fair bidding. The truth needs to be put out."
And finally: "The person who asked us to sign the petition was either misled about its purpose or flat out lying about it. His spin and description was pretty awful and very confusing so I asked to review the language. I hope people aren't falling for that."
On May 19, House Democratic Whip Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) and state Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. (D-East Lansing) introduced legislation that would amend Michigan election law to prohibit a petition circulator from lying or misrepresenting the contents of a petition for a ballot question, initiative, referendum, recall petition, and constitutional amendment. House Bill 4635 and Senate Bill 395, introduced in response to increasing reports of individuals gathering petition signatures under false pretenses, would establish punishment as a misdemeanor.
“Our democracy encourages citizens to call attention to issues that they care about through petition drives that can enact or change public policy, but that process must be an honest one,” Moss said. “This legislation will allow us to continue supporting and protecting this Constitutional right, while also ensuring that petitioners accurately reflect what is in their petitions. A person should be able to grow support for their cause based on its own merit, not by deceptively misrepresenting what the petitions will do.”
Said Hertel: “We've reached the point where citizens' trust in their government to do the right thing is at an all-time low. Unfortunately, we've also seen claims that ballot initiatives — which are a last stand for direct democracy — are being treated with the same disrespect of citizens' wishes that cause their necessity in the first place. We need to make our government work for the people again, and ensuring correct representation on ballot initiatives is a good first step.”