Social distancing makes traditional ballot petitions dangerous, so Fair and Equal Michigan is taking a 21st-century approach.

MICHIGAN — The novel coronavirus COVID-19 has changed a lot about how government functions in an age of social distancing. From virtual town halls to online city government meetings, a lot has changed. This includes ballot drives.

A group attempting to advance a ballot initiative to add LGBT protections to Michigan’s civil rights laws, Fair and Equal Michigan, announced Monday their signature drive would be conducted digitally as a response to the pandemic. The group says their strategy is legal and secure, and that it will be the first time in Michigan’s history a ballot initiative attempted an online petition process. 

People signing the petition are taken to a form with two-factor authentication and provide a driver’s license or state identification number to be cross-checked against the voter roll. Voters sign the petition twice — once as the only name on a petition sheet and once as a petition circulator serving a constituency of one. 

The group has until late May to collect 340,000 signatures. If it can get on the ballot, it is likely to pass. A 2017 report by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 70% of Michiganders supported nondiscrimination protections for the LGBT community. 

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Under Michigan law, firing or evicting people on the bases of their sexual orientation or gender identity is not presently prohibited. The proposal addresses this by enshrining in law the 2018 interpretation of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission that argued that discrimination against LGBT Michiganders qualified as sex-based discrimination. 

“We just want to be judged on the job we do — not who we are or who we love—and we want to be treated equally in the eyes of government,” Trevor Thomas, a co-chair of the new Fair and Equal Michigan, told Bridge.

The proposal is supported by business leaders across the state as well, including DTE Energy President and CEO Jerry Norcia, Consumers Energy President and CEO Patti Poppe, Herman Miller President and CEO Andi Owen, Whirlpool Corp. Vice President Jeff Noel and Dow Inc. CEO Jim Fitterling. It remains staunchly opposed by Republicans in state leadership however. 

The initiative also expands the state’s definition of religion to include personal, individual beliefs. 

Fair and Equal Michigan has addressed different paths to accomplishing their goal, but finds the ballot initiative to be the only viable way forward. Realistically, the group argues, neither the United States Congress nor Supreme Court have the pro-equality voices to change the nationwide status quo, and state-level action is unlikely with an estimated seven years of conservative Lansing policymakers ahead.  

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Even the citizen initiative process is not a slam dunk. Even if Fair and Equal Michigan gets the needed signatures, the Republican majority in the state legislature has used adopt-and-amend tactics to undercut the citizen initiative process in recent history, blocking paid sick leave and minimum wage initiatives in 2018 in a frantic lame-duck session Secretary of State Jocelyn Bensen called an “end-run around democracy.”

But Fair and Equal Michigan evidently anticipated that. The group argues their proposal prevents an ‘adopt and amend’ strategy like the one employed in 2018.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.