By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING – Ballot issues in Michigan aren’t waged only on the ballot.
They’re also waged among the citizenry, in front of the Board of State Canvassers, in the courts and in the media – and that can cost big, big money.
Big as in multimillions of dollars, as recent statewide ballot campaigns have shown.
There are two major petition efforts now underway, one concerning governors’ emergency power and the other concerning LGBTQ rights.
The high price tags and lack of mandatory disclosure of donors’ names draws criticism among open government advocates.
“Ballot petition drives in Michigan are one of the least transparent types of campaigns that can be run in the state because they can accept unlimited corporate dollars,” said Simon Schuster, the executive director of the nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
And organizers can legally hide the sources of their donations, Schuster said.
The highest-profile petition drive is a bid by a group called Unlock Michigan to repeal the 1945 emergency powers law that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer relied on for her original pandemic-related shutdown orders.
The state Supreme Court already tossed out that law as unconstitutional, but backers are wary that a shift in the court’s makeup could reverse that decision, according to Fred Wszolek, who handles communications for the group.
Backers filed 538,345 petition signatures to put the question on the ballot, but Wszolek said he expects the GOP-controlled Legislature to adopt the proposal without the need for a statewide vote. Whitmer can’t veto a citizen-initiated law.
Even without a statewide vote, Unlock Michigan expects its campaign to cost about $3 million, he said.
The Bureau of Elections recommended that the petitions be certified but the Board of State Canvassers declined, splitting evenly with two Democrats against certification and two Republicans in favor.
Wszolek said litigating the board’s decision will cost “in the ballpark of six figures.”
Unlock Michigan’s latest campaign finance report, covering January-March, reported raising $30,000 and spending $29,249. It also reported $84,854 worth of free legal services.
The opposition group, Keep Michigan Safe, raised $29,444 and spent $181,396 for such expenses as attorney fees, petition review and media between January and March. Overall, it’s raised close to $800,000.
The other active petition drive, organized by a group called Fair and Equal Michigan, wants the state civil rights law to explicitly protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in employment, housing and education.
“The initiative would grant civil rights protection to LGBTQ individuals in the state and give them the same protections against discrimination afforded to everyone else,” said Josh Hovey, the group’s communications director.
It would define “sex” in the law to include “gender, sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.” It would also define “religion” to include “the religious beliefs of an individual,” according to the petition language.
Since beginning the campaign, Fair and Equal Michigan raised $2,932,837, plus $785,656 in in-kind contributions, according to its latest financial report.
Its petitions with almost 500,000 signatures are awaiting Elections Bureau review and board certification.
With either of the proposals, if the Legislature doesn’t adopt it within 40 days of certification or rejects it, the question would go to voters in November 2022.
What does it cost to get an issue on the stateside ballot, from conception through Election Day?
Elizabeth Battiste, a senior account executive at the strategic communications firm Martin Waymire, estimates $3million to $5 million simply to get a proposal on the ballot, rising to $10 million to $15 million “when all is said and done.”
That’s even if volunteers rather than paid signature gatherers circulate petitions, as happened with the $15.6 million Voters Not Politicians ballot drive in 2018 that created an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission.
Michigan Campaign Finance Network data shows the major coalition opposing that 2018 proposal, Protect My Vote, spent $3.2 million fighting it.
Roger Martin, a partner in the firm which did consulting and public relations for the successful redistricting ballot drive, says expenses include legal fees to draft ballot language and defend the proposal in the inevitable litigation, as well as research, advertising, social media, coalition-building, consultants, digital marketing and other expenses.