Gag order on elections officials on hold

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Ballot drop box outside of East Lansing City Hall. Photo by: Rene Kiss.

Ballot drop box outside of East Lansing City Hall. Photo by: Rene Kiss.

By Rene Kiss
MI First Election

A recently enacted amendment to Michigan’s campaign finance law was blocked by an injunction issued by U.S. District Court Judge John Corbett O’Meara on Feb. 5.

The bill in question, Senate Bill 571, passed the Legislature in December and escalated from 12 to 53 pages in a last-minute addition. The new language included a provision that restricted local officials from distributing electoral information for the 60 days before an election.

In signing the bill in early January, Gov. Rick Snyder said its vague language created some confusion and called on the Legislature to clarify the issues. Michigan State University journalism professor Eric Freedman said it was uncommon for a state-level government official to sign a bill, when he or she thought it needed clarification.

“It’s highly unusual,” Freedman said. “This is the first time I remember a governor doing that.”

In the meantime, 18 Michigan officials, including nine school district superintendents, four school board presidents, two mayors and a city manager, filed a lawsuit charging an unconstitutional restriction of their right to free-speech. More than 100 communities have issues on the March 8 ballot that would have been affected by the law.

East Lansing City Clerk Marie Wicks said she thinks the law challenges the First Amendment, but is more concerned with how it would affect her job.

“My concern is that this would prevent me even from providing a simple explanation to my election workers, or anyone who comes in with a question about it, who really should know what’s on the ballot,” Wicks said.

According to the City of East Lansing’s website, “the mission of the City Clerk’s Office is to provide accurate information and courteous service in a timely and efficient manner with the highest level of professionalism.”

Wicks said the law would be prohibited from living up to those expectations.

In his ruling, Judge O’Meara agreed the law as written was too vague to differentiate what is okay to say.

“This result appears to be absurd,” he wrote in his ruling. “Public officials deserve clarity on this issue so that they may serve the public in the normal course without fear of arbitrary sanction or prosecution.”

Wicks said the law, which she believes amounts to a “gag order,” is insulting to her as a government official but also to the public.

“It just assumes, at the very basis of this legislation, that the public can’t make its own decision,” she said.

Junior social relations and policy major Ben Schroff said the law will affect first-time voters’ ability to get the information they need regarding the election.

“I think it is important to have as much information as possible as a voter,” he said.

Although O’Meara has stopped the law for now, Wicks said she still feels uncomfortable and uncertain about what will happen.

“I’m baffled,” she said. “This controlling of the voting and of the information is scary, but I’m glad to have seen that injunction. Hopefully it will slam the door shut and keep it shut.”

For the time being, local officials will watch closely as the several proposals that would follow up the law are reviewed.

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