Michigan’s Legislative Loophole, Part 4: Seeking Solutions

By Kyle Kaminski, Isaac Constans, Hope O'Dell

August 19, 2022

This is Part 4 of a 5-part series. Read Part 1 here. Here’s Part 2. Here’s Part 3.

In Part 4 of the Legislative Loophole series, we look at possible solutions to the problem. 

The role of ballot measures in US democracy dates back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the movement regained steam during the Progressive Era, at the beginning of the 20th century.

At that time, voters had become disillusioned by major stories of corruption, and states throughout the country introduced citizen-led ballot initiatives, constitutional amendments, and referendums to encourage a more direct form of democracy.

Michigan’s 1963 Constitution said that any ballot initiative must start with a petition. The petition must get a minimum number of signatures on it, equal to 8% of the last general election’s voting base, to qualify for the ballot. The provision whereby the Legislature could take up legislation without worry of a veto was designed to expedite the process for initiatives popular among voters.

But many, including Gov. Whitmer, suggest that the law as it stands is antiquated.

“Is it a good system of government? No,” Whitmer told the Detroit Free Press at the Mackinac Policy Conference.

“The reason, of course, that most states don’t [have something like this] is that it’s completely undemocratic,” said Nancy Wang, the leader of Voters Not Politicians. “It makes no sense with our system of government because it allows [for] a Legislature like ours that is completely out of touch with what voters want, who pass laws that no one supports.” 

HOW CAN THE LOOPHOLE BE CLOSED?

Closing the loophole completely would take a constitutional amendment. “Citizen Initiative Reform Michigan” is a proposal to do so, backed by the group MI Right to Vote, led by Jan BenDor (from Part 2). Constitutional amendments require the signatures of 10% of voters from the previous gubernatorial election, not 8% like initiatives. However, like the Let MI Kids Learn initiative, Citizen Initiative Reform Michigan didn’t get enough signatures by the June 1 deadline. The group is now setting their sights on the 2024 ballot.

Legislators can introduce bills to tighten the gaps. However, they’d have to pass through a Republican majority in both the House and Senate, as it currently stands. In 2021, state Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) sponsored a package that would hold paid petition firms accountable if circulators knowingly lied to registered voters in an attempt to get them to sign a petition. State Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) also sponsored a package that would create a way for people who have signed a petition to legally remove their name by submitting a written request to the Department of State. Senators Curtis Hertel, Jr. (D-Lansing), Adam Hollier (D-Detroit), and Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) also sponsored bills that limit the loophole’s power. Here’s an easy-to-read press release from 2021, that does a good job of describing them. Until more legislators who care about closing the gaps are elected, however, those bills are unlikely to move forward.

Follow the recommendations of the non-biased Citizens Research Council of Michigan. For years, the objective nonprofit group has published reports about Michian’s indirect initiative. Two recent ones offer strong recommendations for how to reform the process to make it more secure, transparent, and less vulnerable to being exploited. 

Redistricting may move the needle. BenDor also took part in the state’s redistricting effort, redistributing districts in a way that helps re-level the playing field for Michigan voters. [Since the 2010 Census, new district boundaries were drawn by GOP mapmakers and gerrymandered to give Republicans four additional seats in the House and one additional seat in the Senate.]

Decline to sign…right away, anyway. “Voters should never sign an initiative that has announced its intentions to stay off the ballot,” BenDor said. Like, for example, Let MI Kids Learn. After Gov. Whitmer vetoed the campaign’s legislation in 2021 (remember, the Let MI Kids Learn proposal was originally two Senate bills before becoming a citizen initiative), the group announced it would push the issue past voters and to the Legislature for a vote.

Here are some other tips from the Michigan Daily’s voter guide:

  • Research petitions before signing them. 
  • Ask to read the summary and petition in full before signing – don’t take the petitioner’s word for it. The full text of the petition will be on the back and in the pages just behind the signature pages. 
  • Check the bottom-left corner of the page to see which organization is behind the petition.

Oftentimes, activists tell voters to call their elected officials to let them know how they feel about an issue. This year, BenDor said, it may be difficult to influence Republican lawmakers to vote against their majority-party during an indirect process. 

“Those people are not going to be open to pressure from their constituents,” she said. “This is all about power.”

What’s the takeaway? That’s Part 5.

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