A Michigan anti-fracking initiative may not meet a petition deadline
A Michigan anti-fracking initiative may not meet a petition deadline | Dan Holm, Shutterstock

Michigan ballot initiatives face hurdles

LANSING, MICHIGAN: Two public interest groups hoping to put issues before Michigan voters in November say they are being stymied by an uncooperative board using antiquated methods to check petition signatures.

The groups face a June 1 deadline to have their petitions for ballot initiatives validated — one to legalize marijuana, and another to limit energy fracking.

But the state’s four-member Board of Canvassers, appointed by the governor with two members of each political party, has declined to adopt an updated process for determining if signatures older than 180 days are valid.

That new process involves matching signatures against the state’s qualified voter file, which is kept by the state’s Department of Elections. Using it would allow the older signatures to be quickly validated.

“We’ve spent almost a million dollars collecting over 300,000 signatures,” said Jeffrey Hank, who is part of the MI Legalize group seeking to put marijuana legalization before voters in November. “All they have to do is adopt the qualified voter list to verify those signatures over 180 days old, and the situation will be fine.”

MI Legalize asked the Board of Canvassers to consider the qualified voter file in December.

The move requires a comment period following the request and the state received emails from various interest groups, some supporting the notion of allowing use of the voter file.

The oil and gas lobby, fearing the anti-fracking measure could be approved if the new verification method were allowed, asked the state to leave it alone.

Hank said his group has a team of five lawyers who will take action if the state refuses to allow use of the voter file.

But the Board of Canvassers has refused to allow the use of the list, and the state’s Department of Elections will not proceed without the go-ahead.

Instead, entities seeking a spot on the ballot with petition signatures over 180 days old must contact the signer to sign an affidavit confirming their legitimate voter status as of the signing date. For Hank, that means finding nearly 160,000 voters from all over the state who signed more than 180 days ago, a task he said would be impossible by June 1.

The state’s elections chief, Christopher Thomas, last month advised the board that allowing the use of the qualified voter file would allow the petition to move forward and outlined the statute that allows this.

Thomas did not respond to an email seeking a comment.

“The qualified voter file has been with us since 1998 and this is 2016 and no one has wanted to use it until now,” said Norm Shinkle, a Republican member of the Board of Canvassers. “These groups failed to get the required amount of signatures in 180 days and they are trying to get us to bail them out by changing the rules. I say let the rules be changed in the next election cycle, not in the middle of the game.”

Michigan voters have approved 28 measures placed on the ballot through the petition process since 1916, ranging from increasing the drinking age from 18 to 21 in 1978 to authorizing medicinal marijuana in 2008.

Twenty-four states allow the use of petitions to create ballot measures for creating or amending a state law. Laws governing signatures vary. Oregon, where voters have passed the most ballot initiatives with 130, gives petitioners two years to gather signatures. Petitions submitted for validation 165 days before the election and found deficient have another 45 days to remedy those defects.

In California, second to Oregon in the number of measures passed with 212, signatures must be gathered in the 180 days prior to submission.