Photo via Shutterstock.
Photo via Shutterstock.

Don’t forget the back of the ballot, Michiganders! We explain voting on how parks will be funded, digital privacy and just what a “mill” even is.

MICHIGAN—In 2018, Michiganders had a swath of impactful ballot initiatives. Those included the massive voting reforms that allowed no-reason voting by mail which has led to record-smashing turnout during the coronavirus pandemic as well as permitting Michigan’s burgeoning recreational marijuana industry. 

Every statewide election comes with a few ballot initiatives like these. Typically at the end, grouped with county and local proposals like them, ballot initiatives go through an extensive process to get listed. 

Most statewide proposals are submitted in writing to the Secretary of State and Board of Canvassers before gathering signatures. The number of signatures needed for a ballot initiative varies, but is based on the number of people who voted in the last election, meaning the higher the turnout, the harder it is to get a proposal on the ballot next election.

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That gives the state legislature a chance to adopt the proposal without it ever going to a statewide vote. This intended fast-lane was abused in 2018, when Michigan’s legislature adopted various proposed worker protections and minimum wage increases, only to gut them after the election and circumvent the will of Michigan voters. 

If everything goes right, though, the proposal ends up being voted on by Michiganders.

On the back of Michigan ballots for the November election will be two proposals. 

Proposal 1: Use of State and Local Park Funds Amendment

The first proposal on the back of the Michigan ballot is about how park funding works across the state. 

Presently, the trust fund for natural resources in the state is capped, and parks can’t seek grants to develop new structural changes to their parks, limiting the resources that can be drawn on for those projects. Moreover, the resources available for those structural improvements from the state park funds aren’t guaranteed to be used for that purpose, meaning what resources parks do have available they need to fight for. 

Voting “Yes” on Proposal 1 changes all that. The proposal is a constitutional amendment in Michigan that would send the first $800 million in money raised by the sale of oil and gas on state-owned land to the state parks fund and everything after that would go into the trust fund for natural resources. A quarter of that fund would be assigned to conservation efforts and a quarter of it would be assigned to public recreation.

Supporters argue that in a time where, increasingly, recreation happens outdoors because of the pandemic, Proposal 1 is important to a post-coronavirus world. Moreover, the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance pointed to the economic boon of public recreation spaces. 

“The Blue Water River Walk is a prime example—the [trust fund] helped acquire the property, then St. Clair County and the Community Foundation worked for years to create a vibrant waterfront,” said Alliance executive director Andrea LaFontaine. “Today the Blue Water River Walk offers a trail, observation dock, outdoor classroom, wetlands park, fishing pier and public art displays—all free and available to all. Who wouldn’t want to live nearby?”

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But the amendment is opposed by environmental groups like Michigan Land Conservancy, who are concerned with the consequences of how the changes would be implemented. In particular, they’re concerned that dipping into the trust fund for parks and recreation will exhaust the funding needed for conservation.

“By proposing to change only one word in the Constitution, the purpose of the Trust Fund will be virtually reversed,” said Michigan Land Conservancy president Jack Smiley. “We need increased land protection efforts at this critical time to meet the challenges of climate change, habitat loss and the dramatic declines in wildlife populations. If we miss out on the acquisition of a spectacular or key parcel and it gets sold and developed, it is lost forever.”

Proposal 2: Search Warrant for Electronic Data Amendment

The other proposal this November, also a constitutional amendment, is fairly straightforward. As it stands, things like electronic data, text messages and emails exist in a sort of legal limbo. When the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment was drafted, a person’s data was in papers and books, physical objects that law enforcement would need to enter a premises to obtain. That’s changed dramatically in the last 250 years. 

Right now, law enforcement can read your emails without a warrant. In Katz v. US, the Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment’s protections against warrantless searches extended to anywhere that Americans have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” which remains undefined for a digital world. 

Voting “Yes on Proposal 2 gives Michiganders that expectation of privacy. It explicitly adds electronic data and communications to Michigan’s definition of things protected from unreasonable searches under the federal Fourth Amendment. 

It also seems uncontroversial. While groups like the American Civil Liberties Union called it a “very important step” in defining privacy in the 21st century, law enforcement officials have also by and large supported, or at least not opposed, Proposal 2. 

Neither Ballotpedia nor Reason have records of any groups formally opposing Proposal 2. 

Local Proposals

In addition to statewide proposals, various counties and cities include ballot proposals as well. These typically are related to how the city or county raises and spends money. Often these take the form of millages.

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Millages are special-purpose additions to property taxes and are assessed in mills. One mill is a tenth of a cent. If, for example, a millage assesses a 1 mill tax, that means for every $1,000 of valuation a property has for tax purposes the owner pays $1 in taxes. So a person with property taxes on a $350,000 home would pay $350 as a result of a 1 mill proposal. 

Ann Arbor, for instance, has one proposal that levies a 1 mill increase in property taxes for the purpose of building affordable housing for low-income residents which will run for 20 years and is expected to make about $6.5 million for the city in its first year, to be used specifically for this purpose. 

In the Upper Peninsula, citizens of Ironwood will decide whether or not to continue an existing 18 mill proposal for Ironwood Area Schools of Gogebic County. 

Allegan County, on the other hand, is looking to change the structure it’s millages take, separating the maximum mill limitations on county, city and school millages.