The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, February 08, 2019

State attorney general to review petition gathering restrictions

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

LANSING - A new restriction on petition signature gathering in Michigan could put a major crimp on any future attempt to use the already laborious method to reinstate the state's prevailing wage law.

Of course, that's not the only issue that could be affected by a state law adopted by the Michigan Legislature in their year-end 2018 lame duck session. But for the building trades - and newly elected state Attorney General Jocelyn Benson - the issue is front and center.

Benson wrote a letter dated Jan. 18 to Secretary of State Dana Nessel, asking for her opinion on the constitutionality of the new law, PA 608, which limits petition circulators from collecting more than 15 percent of their total signatures from any one congressional district. The new statute has the effect of making it more difficult to get sufficient signatures during a petition drive, forcing name gatherers to spend time going to less-populous areas to find signers.

"For more than a century," Benson said in her letter, "Michiganders have exercised core First Amendment rights in the circulation of initiative, referendum and constitutional amendment petitions. In 2018 alone, the sponsors of statewide proposals submitted over 2.3 million signatures gathered in support of six different proposed initiated laws and constitutional amendments. Public Act 608 of 2018 burdens this process by adding new provisions that require the invalidation of petition signatures."

The new law presents a significant geographic challenge to petitioners, who in the last two years have presented Michigan voters with the opportunity to have a say in everything from prevailing wage repeal to recreational marijuana legalization to setting up a commission to redraw district lines for state lawmakers.

The new law requires that signatures must be gathered in seven of Michigan's 14 congressional districts. The 15 percent limit on signatures is not only arbitrary, it negates the right of additional citizens to sign the petition if that 15 percent level has been reached. And it places additional burdens on petition organizers, who must closely watch locations where signatures are coming from. On petition drives that will involve more than 300,000 signatures to be successful, that's no small consideration. 

Noting that the state Constitution says nothing about placing geographic limitations on signature gathering in Michigan, Benson said.

The state attorney general's office said they would take a look at the case. An attorney general's opinion is valid unless it's over-ruled by a court. 

“Restricting the right of Michiganders to participate in the political process is a serious subject matter,” Nessel said in a statement responding to Benson's request. “PA 608 puts a limit on the peoples’ voice and that is cause for great concern – something a rushed lame-duck Legislature failed to regard in passing this law. Secretary of State Benson has challenged and raised the important question of this act’s constitutionality and my office is prepared to tackle this request promptly."

Public Act 608, adopted by a majority Republican legislature, was signed by Gov. Rick Snyder, who said it "will promote geographic diversity in support of ballot proposals similar to the way gubernatorial candidates are required to have when they file for election.”

Mark Brewer, an election lawyer and former state Democratic Party Chairman, tweeted that it is another example of Snyder “denigrating the people’s reserved power to enact and repeal laws.”

Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council Secretary-Treasurer Patrick Devlin said the law is clearly aimed at making it even more difficult to sponsor a potential petition drive to reinstate the state's prevailing wage law. He also pointed out that last year the state Legislature "intercepted" and then watered down worker-friendly petition initiatives that were headed for the ballot, including a quicker increase in the state's minimum wage law and greater sick leave time for Michigan workers.

"I hope the attorney general overturns the limits the Legislature placed on petition gathering," Devlin said. "It's like voter suppression, it's blatantly taking away a right of the people to change the laws that the state's Republicans don't like. And you have to notice the timing on this, the Legislature could have done this over the past few years, but didn't, in order to allow the ABC (Associated Builders and Contractors - Michigan) to distribute their petitions to repeal prevailing wage without any restrictions."