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Lawsuit filed to block new Michigan ballot requirements

By DAVID EGGERTMay 23, 2019
FILE - In this March 18, 2019, file photo, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel attends an event for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., in Clawson, Mich. Nessel said Wednesday, May 22, that a Republican-enacted law making it harder to put proposals on the ballot is unconstitutional. Her opinion binds state officials unless it is reversed by a court. A legal fight is expected. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya File)
FILE - In this March 18, 2019, file photo, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel attends an event for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., in Clawson, Mich. Nessel said Wednesday, May 22, that a Republican-enacted law making it harder to put proposals on the ballot is unconstitutional. Her opinion binds state officials unless it is reversed by a court. A legal fight is expected. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya File)

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Voting-rights advocates and a campaign-finance ballot drive group sued Michigan’s top election official on Thursday, challenging Republican-enacted requirements that make it harder to qualify proposals for the statewide ballot.

The lawsuit came a day after Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel said that the law passed in December’s lame-duck session is unconstitutional. Her opinion is binding on state election officials, but it is expected that courts will have the final say.

The law says no more than 15% of petition signatures can be counted from any one of the state’s 14 congressional districts. There is no geographic limit in the state constitution.

“Public Act 608 should be declared unconstitutional because it burdens and limits the exercise of self-executing constitutional rights, and because it is an attempt by the legislature to amend the Constitution by statute — arrogating power that is reserved exclusively to the people,” says the complaint brought by the League of Women Voters of Michigan, the ballot committee Michiganders for Fair and Transparent Elections, its founder and two voters.

The 15% requirement will “dramatically increase the cost and difficulty of mounting a successful citizen petition campaign,” according to the suit filed in the Court of Claims, which seeks a permanent injunction against the law. It also challenges other new rules that require circulators to check a box indicating if they are paid or a volunteer, force paid gatherers to file an affidavit with the secretary of state and invalidate signatures that do not meet technical requirements.

To make the ballot in 2020 or 2022, groups proposing a constitutional amendment must submit 425,000 signatures. The threshold is 340,000 for an initiative and 212,000 for a referendum.

The plaintiffs estimate that just 11% to 13.7% of registered voters in any congressional district would have the prospect of their signature being counted.

The law is backed by business groups and GOP lawmakers who say it adds much-need transparency and accountability to the petition-gathering process and ensures statewide input earlier on ballot drives often funded by out-of-state interests.

Former Michigan Solicitor General John Bursch, who spoke last year in favor of the legislation on behalf of a number of business organizations, said the law is constitutional and criticized Nessel’s decision.

“The Michigan Constitution doesn’t say that you only need x number of signatures and then no more. The language sets a floor ... and then it gives the Legislature power to implement the section,” he said. “If you just read those words and their ordinary meaning, it suggests that the Legislature does have latitude to make adjustments to make sure that all the people of Michigan are fairly represented in an initiative or referendum context.”

Those suing include Michiganders for Fair and Transparent Elections, a ballot committee that is drafting a constitutional amendment to “strengthen and reform” the state’s campaign-finance reporting and disclosure requirements. The group intended to start its campaign this summer but because of the uncertainty over the new law and anticipated additional costs, may need to raise more money and may be unable to circulate petitions until 2020, according to the suit.

The defendant is Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who is named in her official capacity. Benson, who has criticized the changes to the initiative process, welcomed Nessel’s opinion on Wednesday.

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