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House Agrees To Cap Citizens Petition Signatures By Congressional Districts

December 18, 2018

Signatures for ballot proposals would be capped for each congressional district at 15 percent of the total number of signatures submitted — and anything beyond that would be thrown out — under legislation that leapt from committee and was approved by the House, 60-49, Wednesday.

Rep. Martin Howrylak (R-Troy), Rep. Steven Johnson (R-Wayland) and Rep. Jeff Yaroch (R-Richmond) were the only Republicans to join Democrats in voting no.

HB 6595, introduced by Rep. James Lower (R-Cedar Lake) six days ago, makes a number of changes to the petition-gathering process, changes that many in committee Thursday said would make the process more difficult for grassroots volunteers to place initiatives on the ballot.

The West Michigan Policy Forum, represented by former state Solicitor General John Bursch, backs the proposal, along with many business groups, including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Small Business Association of Michigan, and more. Lower said his bill would provide more accountability and more transparency to the ballot proposal process.

But Right to Life (RTL) of Michigan — which has relied on the petition drives and volunteer collectors on numerous occasions — opposed the bill in its current form, and other organizations like AFSCME, ACLU and the AFL-CIO also opposed the bill.

The geographical threshold in the bill calls for limiting the percentage of signatures collected from a congressional district to 15 percent of the total number of signatures — any collected in excess of that percentage would be thrown out.

Rep. Yousef Rabhi (D-Ann Arbor) said voters who sign a petition over this threshold wouldn’t “matter.”

“That person’s voice is silenced. Silenced, Mr. Speaker. We are telling them that their voice does not matter,” he said.

While Lower likes the idea of making sure signatures come from all corners of the state, Mike Batterbee, director of government affairs for the Secretary of State (SOS) said verifying the percent threshold would be difficult, considering the SOS doesn’t go line-by-line in ballot proposal petitions, but rather pulls a sample to assess the validity of the signatures. 

Lower addressed this in a substitute by saying it is up to the petitions gatherers to sort the signatures by congressional districts.

Also, the initial bill said every petition circulator would have to file with the state an affidavit to show whether they’re a paid signature gatherer or a volunteer signature gatherer. Any signatures collected by a circulator who hadn’t filed would be considered invalid.

Right to Life’s Genevieve Marnon called that an “administrative nightmare” waiting to happen. 

“Can you appreciate 10,000 individual volunteers registering with the Secretary of State?” she asked the committee.

Lower later addressed this in his substitute by only requiring paid circulators to register with the state.

Lower’s bill also would move the date by which the Board of State Canvassers (BSC) must certify a petition to no later than the July 1 before the election. The BSC has typically finalized that type of work by early September before the election.

And, any legal challenges to the Canvassers’ findings would need to be filed within three days, directly to the Michigan Supreme Court. 

To that, Sharon Dolente of the ACLU – who said she has many issues with the bill — said she’s never heard of a legal challenge period that short, and said it may be unconstitutional. 

Other provisions in HB 6595 include the invalidation of any signatures that were not signed in the circulator’s presence. Also, a “factual” 100-word summary that the state elections director usually comes up with for certified proposals would need to be included with the petition on the front end.

The Lower bill was reported out of the House Elections and Ethics Committee, chaired by Rep. Aaron Miller (R-Sturgis), Thursday morning on a 6-3 party-line vote, with Democrats dissenting. 

Rep. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) attempted to amend the bill to switch the 10 percent congressional district cap on signatures to a 3 percent floor, gaining the support of the SOS, RTL and AFSCME, but that amendment failed on a 3 to 5 vote.

Dem-Backed Petition Drive Changes Move
The full House also passed a Democrat-backed bill package that makes a number of petition-gathering changes, as well.

Moss was the primary sponsor on some of the bills, which he said were introduced to deal with the alleged deception tactics being used by petition circulators, particularly calling out the prevailing wage repeal campaign.

The committee voted to report six Democratic-backed bills, with only one no vote registered on any of the bills voted out. Four of the bills passed on the floor. Rep. Daniela Garcia (R-Holland) passed on each vote and Rep. Michael Webber (R-Rochester Hills) passed on two votes.

Moss said the bills were introduced as a particular response to the anecdotes they heard about petitioners who were collecting for the prevailing wage proposal — he cited the MIRSstory where a prevailing wage repeal circulator said he was collecting to raise the state’s minimum wage.

HB 4635 would prohibit circulators from intentionally making a false statement or misrepresentation about the petitions and make that a misdemeanor if violated. The full House passed the measure, 100-9.

HB 5209 would prohibit a petition-gathering company from employing a circulator who had been convicted as an election crime, a situation that came up with the part-time legislature petition drive. This bill passed 104-5.

HB 5208 would allow a petition signer to remove his or her name for a petition, particularly if they were duped by a collector. This bill also passed 104-5.

On HB 5210, would have petition circulators paid on an hourly basis, rather than on a per-signature basis, to remove any incentive to lie to get signatures, Moss said. This bill did not get a House vote and died.

HB 5212 would have paid petition circulators wear identification badges indicating that they’re a paid circulator and what entity is paying that circulator. This passed 98-11.

And HB 5213 requires organizations employing at least one paid circulator must register with the SOS. This bill did not get a House vote and died.

Rep. Klint Kesto (R-Commerce Twp.) voted no on HB 5212. Webber passed on voting for HB 5208 and HB 5213. Garcia passed on each bill in the package. Otherwise, everyone else on the committee voted yes on each of the bills. 

The committee did not vote on two bills originally listed on the agenda: HB 5211, which provided penalties for circulators intentionally making false statements or misrepresenting the petitions they’re hawking.

It also did not vote on HB 5214, which would’ve allowed the first of duplicate signatures on a petition to count, rather than both getting thrown out, which is the practice now for when duplicate signatures are found. 

Those bills were sponsored by Love and Rep. Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills), respectively.

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