By KAREN HOPPER USHER
Capital News Service
LANSING — For the first time since 1968, Michigan voters won’t face a statewide ballot question when they cast their votes in the presidential election.
In 2012, voters turned down all six ballot questions they saw. Only 1968 with eight and 1980 with seven had more.
“The ridiculous thing to me,” said Dana Nessel, president of Fair Michigan, which tried to get sexual orientation and gender protections into the state constitution, “I kept hearing that there were going to be too many ballot initiatives” in 2016.
Experts told her voters wouldn’t know what to do with so many ballot questions, so they would just vote “no” on all of them, she said.
Fair Michigan didn’t get enough signatures and never turned in its petitions to the Board of Canvassers.
Twelve groups started the process of putting a statewide question on the 2016 ballot. Only one turned in signatures to the Board of Canvassers.
Marijuana legalization might have had a chance of voter approval, said Dianne Byrum, a partner at Byrum Fisk Communications, which in the past has managed petition drives.
MILegalize, a marijuana-legalization group, thought it had the more than 250,000 valid signatures to get its issue on the ballot. The number needed depends on the type of ballot question and how many people voted in the last gubernatorial election. It ranges from 5 percent to 10 percent of the votes cast.
But too many of MILegalize’s signatures were too old, said Jeffrey Hank, a Lansing attorney and the executive director of MILegalize. Under Michigan law, petition signatures have to be younger than 180 days old.
When MILegalize, also known as the Michigan Comprehensive Cannabis Law Reform Committee, turned in the signatures, a Board of Canvassers policy would have allowed the group to preserve some of the older ones, Hank said. Old signatures could be used if they came with affidavits from the voter or if municipal clerks verified that the person was registered to vote when he or she signed the petition.
Both processes were far too onerous, Hank said.
So MILegalize used the state’s Qualified Voter File to show citizens who signed the petition outside the 180-day range had been registered to vote when they signed the petition. But the state rejected that method.
MILegalize has appealed, and courts so far have backed the Bureau of Elections, Woodhams said. Hank said MILegalize will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Nobody had ever attempted to preserve old signatures before, Woodhams said. Groups simply collected more signatures than they needed to give themselves a cushion.
MILegalize will try to get the proposal on the ballot in the future, Hank said.
But it’ll have to be fast. The old provision for salvaging old signatures is gone. Gov. Rick Snyder signed a law this summer which holds to a strict 180-day rule. The bill took immediate effect and was sponsored by Sen. David Robertson, R-Grand Blanc.
It’s getting harder for citizens to petition their government, said Sam Inglot, deputy communications director at Progress Michigan, a liberal communications organization.
“We need to be making it more accessible to get on the ballot,” he said.
The rule doesn’t matter much because it’s already so expensive for grassroots, citizen-led initiatives to get on the ballot, Hank said. “It’s pay-to-play.”
Nessel agreed. Strategists told Fair Michigan it needed to hire a signature-collecting company, she said. The estimates were between $1.5 million to $2 million.
It takes even more money to run a campaign, Byrum said. “It’s getting difficult for groups to raise that kind of money.”
Getting questions on the ballot basically requires paid signature gatherers, and that means an up-front investment, said Matt Grossman, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University.
“With enough money, you can get anything on the ballot,” Grossman said. But it’s not true that with enough money you can get anything to pass.
Successfully petition drives need to start at two-thirds voter approval if there’s any kind of opposition campaign, Grossman said.
The roads funding referendum of 2015 failed with bipartisan support and lots of money spent on the campaign, he said.
Other petition drives that submitted forms to the Secretary of State for initiatives or constitutional amendments for this election were Abrogate Prohibition, a marijuana issue; Committee to Ban Fracking; Earned Sick Time Act; Eliminate (i), which was about the sale of Tesla vehicles; Let’s Vote Michigan, regarding mail-in voting; Michigan Cannabis Coalition; People’s Initiative to Hold Government Accountable, about a process to convict public officials for failing to uphold their oaths of office; Protect Michigan Taxpayers, about a repeal of the prevailing wage law; and Stop Overcharging, about hospital billing practices.