One of the last signature drives before the stay-at-home order went into effect, with Grand Rapids Pride Center. Photo courtesy Fair and Equal Michigan.
One of the last signature drives before the stay-at-home order went into effect, with Grand Rapids Pride Center. Photo courtesy Fair and Equal Michigan.

Despite support, Fair and Equal Michigan was only able to collect a typical week’s worth of petition signatures during the entire coronavirus pandemic.

MICHIGAN — The novel coronavirus has been a major upset to the process of political campaigns. LGBTQ rights group Fair and Equal Michigan is asking a court to adapt petition signature drive rules to recognize the roadblocks the virus created. 

Fair and Equal Michigan was seeking signatures to get a ballot proposal listed for November that would extend nondiscrimination protections to LGBTQ Michiganders, who can at present be evicted or fired for their identities. 

This was the first digital petition process ever attempted in the state of Michigan. As it became clear the petition would not reach the required signature threshold to appear on the ballot, Fair and Equal Michigan sued to have petitioning standards changed as a response to the virus.

If adopted, the proposal would amend the state’s definition of “sex” in its nondiscrimination law to include gender identity and sexual orientation. The initiative also expands the state’s definition of religion to include personal, individual beliefs. 

That 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. 

Fair and Equal Michigan v. Benson

The lawsuit, Fair and Equal Michigan v. Benson, seeks to have the deadline extended or the number of needed signatures lowered proportionate to the time the coronavirus took away from the petition drive. Based on their current projections, without judicial relief the Fair and Equal proposal will not appear on the November ballot. 

“This means Fair and Equal and its supporters will be unable to execute their constitutional right to initiate legislation,” the suit argues. “And that further means Michigan’s LGBTQ population must continue to live with the knowledge that it’s state’s laws do not expressly prohibit treating them as inferior.” 

The lawsuit points to a related case, Esshaki v. Whitmer, in which a court decided a congressional candidate needing to collect only 1,000 signatures during the pandemic posed an undue burden. 

Bridge reports the lawsuit would lower the needed signatures to only 127,518 — the number of signatures that would’ve been needed had the petition window ended when the coronavirus crisis began. That threshold has already been met by the petition. 

“We spent 37 years trying to right this wrong, and today we stand together determined to have … our voices heard,” campaign co-chair Trevor Thomas told Bridge. “Especially in a time of great difficulty, such as our public health crisis, it is now when our constitutional rights must be upheld.”

The lawsuit will be considered by the Michigan Court of Claims Tuesday, with a temporary extension of the deadline for signatures until after the case is heard, reports Ballotpedia News

Petitioning During a Pandemic

Fair and Equal Michigan attempted to adapt their approach to still meet the required signature threshold in the allotted time, as The ‘Gander reported in April, but the experimental approach to petitioning didn’t take off the way the group had hoped. Of the 177,865 signatures the group was able to gather, it only got 44,000 since the Stay Home, Stay Safe order was issued  by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in mid-March. 

It got nearly that many signatures in just one week before that order, the lawsuit states, with 43,103 in the week ending March 15. 

“Only one day after Fair and Equal announced it had collected 100,000 signatures and that it was ‘on time, on budget and at signature quality’, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services identified the first two presumptive-positive cases of COVID-19,” the lawsuit states. “Whereas Fair and Equal was able to gather 43,103 in the week ending March 15, the very next week it was only able to gather 7,348 signatures.” 

Partnering with DocuSign and attempting an innovative, and expensive, solution to the trouble brought to the process by the pandemic only yielded just over 12,000 signatures throughout April and May.

“It thus became clear there is no substitute for the traditional means of signature-gathering,” the complaint reads. 

Meanwhile the organization spent more than $131,000 on the experimental petitioning process.

The 177,865 total Fair and Equal Michigan managed to obtain fell far short of the over 340,000 signatures needed to appear on the November ballot, where findings by the Public Religion Research Institute suggest the measure would be approved by a wide margin. 

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.