DETROIT, MI  - DECEMBER 19: A community member signs a nominating petition to help gain Gretchen Whitmer ballot access for Michigan Governor.  (Photo by Ali Lapetina for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
DETROIT, MI - DECEMBER 19: A community member signs a nominating petition to help gain Gretchen Whitmer ballot access for Michigan Governor. (Photo by Ali Lapetina for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Some of the most powerful changes brought to Michigan law have come from citizen-led petition campaigns getting issues on the ballot. Here’s how they did it.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Petitions are surprisingly effective ways to create change in Michigan. The new Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, which allows everyday Michiganders to draw their voting districts ahead of the 2022 election, was created by a citizen petition based on the work of state Rep. Jon Hoadley (D-Kalamazoo).

Another petition, likely bound for that 2022 ballot, is one that would expand Michigan’s non-discrimination law to include LGBTQ Michiganders, being championed by Fair and Equal Michigan and Equality Michigan.

These successes give Hoadley a sense of hope.

“What are the other big issues that we can tackle?” Hoadley asked in a September interview with The ‘Gander. “Racial justice, criminal justice reform, and equity? Those are big systems to fix, but this shows me there’s a path.”

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Other Michigan petitions in recent years have extended digital privacy rights, legalized recreational marijuana, and expanded the voting rights of Michiganders leading to the shattered turnout records in Michigan’s May, August, and November elections. 

Ballot initiatives are extremely powerful, and they can start with a single Michigander. 

Getting to the Ballot

The process starts with an idea. 

It can be a change to an existing law, like the Fair and Equal Michigan proposal, or an entirely new law. It can even amend the state’s constitution. That idea is then written out and submitted to the Secretary of State and the State Board of Canvassers. When that written proposal is approved, it becomes the petition language used in amassing signatures. 

While it’s possible to undertake this process alone, it can be prohibitively difficult to do so. Collaborating with a nonprofit organization that has the infrastructure in place to support this process is all but essential in the signature collection phase. It is quite common and useful, though ultimately optional, to find like-minded Michiganders to connect with as the idea is developed. 

The deadline to get petition language approved is 160 days, or about six months, prior to the election for initiatives. Initiatives also must receive signatures equal to or more than 8% of the votes cast for governor in the last gubernatorial election. For 2022, that’s 330,059 signatures.

The deadline is 120 days for constitutional amendments. These need 10% of the votes cast for governor. In 2022, that means 412,573 signatures. In other words, amendment petitions can be filed later than other ballot proposals, but require more signatures. 

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Constitutional amendments also go directly to the ballot once the Board of Canvassers verifies the signatures. Initiatives, on the other hand, go to the Legislature, which has 40 days to adopt the proposal without it getting on the ballot. 

This has been abused by the Legislature in 2018, when Republican legislators used a controversial “adopt and amend” approach to keep a minimum wage increase off the 2018 ballot which they then gutted after the election.  

But Fair and Equal Michigan designed their initiative in a way to avoid that problem altogether. Additionally the proposal is expected to go before the legislature almost two full years before it would appear on the ballot, meaning the idea of adopting it and then amending it after the 2022 election is not a feasible tactic for opponents in the Legislature. 

Once that phase is complete, it’s a campaign like any other, involving typical campaign tactics such as cavanssing to spread the word. Persuasive messaging and simply having a good idea are all critical to convincing voters to adopt the proposal by voting for it in the next election. This is another point at which a network of support across interest groups and political activists can be crucial in swinging the outcome. 

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Ballot proposals have to contend with a problem called ballot drop-off, where people are less likely to vote on an item the farther down the ballot it is, and proposals are usually the last things on the ballot. This means that simply getting a message out can be the difference between passing and not passing a proposal. There also tends to be interests aligned against a proposal, though as seen in the digital privacy ballot initiative in 2020 this isn’t always the case, as no group formed to oppose the proposal. 

If more people vote Yes, stating their agreement with the idea, than No on Election Day, the idea will become a law or constitutional amendment. And from the seed of a thought, a policy is born.