Michigan court again vacates restrictions on ballot drives

·3 min read

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The Michigan appeals court on Friday again struck down major changes to the state's ballot drive law, including a limit on how many voter signatures can come from any one region.

The ruling was the latest in a lengthy legal fight that began after Republican lawmakers and then-Gov. Rick Snyder enacted the lame-duck law nearly three years ago following voters' approval of proposals to legalize marijuana for recreational use; curtail the gerrymandering of congressional and legislative districts; and expand voting options.

The law makes it harder to mount ballot initiatives. Major parts have never taken effect because of an opinion from Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel and court decisions.

In a 3-0 ruling, the court negated a 15% cap on signatures that can be used from any one of Michigan’s congressional districts, saying the state constitution includes no geographic distribution requirement. There was no threshold previously to collect hundreds of thousands of signatures.

The provision “establishes an unnecessary and unreasonable restraint on the constitutional right of the people to initiate laws,” Judge Amy Ronayne ​Krause wrote in an opinion joined by Judge Kirsten Frank Kelly. Judge Thomas Cameron concurred in the result.

The court also nullified requirements that paid circulators file an affidavit with the secretary of state and that each petition indicate whether a circulator is paid or a volunteer.

A different panel declared portions of the law unconstitutional in 2020, but the Michigan Supreme Court last December declared the case moot because one of the plaintiffs dropped a ballot drive due to the coronavirus pandemic. The League of Women Voters of Michigan and other groups sued again in February.

“This ruling is a victory for democracy and the people of Michigan,” said Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan, one of the plaintiffs. The liberal advocacy organization has said it plans to support 2022 ballot initiatives to overhaul lobbying rules and subject legislators and the governor to public-records requests.

“Petitioning is our most direct exercise of democracy, and efforts to hinder that only hurt voters’ right to use their voices to affect policy change,” Christina Schlitt and Paula Bowman, co-presidents of the League of Women Voters of Michigan, said in a statement.

In 2018, the new law was backed by business groups and Republicans who said it would add transparency and accountability to the petition-gathering process and ensure statewide input earlier on ballot drives often funded by out-of-state interests.

It was not immediately known if the state would appeal the latest ruling to the Supreme Court. But the attorney general's office has previously indicated it will defend the law and adequately represent the Legislature's interests, the appeals court said.

To make the ballot, groups proposing a constitutional amendment must submit 425,000 valid signatures. The threshold is 340,000 for an initiative and 212,000 for a referendum.

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David Eggert, The Associated Press

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