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November 12, 2012 at 10:55 am

Pressure for ballot reform growing in Michigan

Plans would ban paid petition circulators, boost transparency

Lansing — It's been a rollercoaster year for the citizens' initiative ballot process — and now lawmakers are facing pressure to change Michigan's form of direct democracy.

The Board of State Canvassers deadlocked on placing a repeal of the emergency manager law on the ballot over a petition font size dispute, plunging a public meeting into chaos and resulting in one board member being spit on by angry protesters.

Michigan's top courts got quite a workout, green-lighting the emergency manager referendum and three of the five constitutional amendments for the ballot and halting a casino expansion initiative from going before voters.

And after groups spent $90 million trying to convince voters to adopt the constitutional amendments, they all were defeated last week after $60million was spent on opposition campaigns.

Changes under consideration include banning paid petition circulators to requiring more disclosure of who is financing ballot campaigns and increasing the number of signatures needed to get on the ballot.

Some changes would have to be done constitutionally through a statewide vote — and that carries its own risks of being criticized as a consolidation of power in Lansing, said Bill Ballenger, publisher of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter.

"That will have a lot of resonance with people," Ballenger said.

Still, some voters expressed disgust at the multimillion-dollar ballot initiative advertising they endured for two months from unions that sought to enshrine collective bargaining in the constitution and from Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel "Matty" Moroun, who financed a failed $33 million record-setting campaign to block a new public bridge to Canada.

"I think it's too easy to get on the ballot if you have money," said Mark Piegols, 62, of Delta Township in suburban Lansing.

Paid circulators

State Rep. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, introduced legislation Thursday seeking to ban the practice of groups paying petition circulators for each signature they gather.

Gov. Rick Snyder has said he supports outlawing the "per bounty" practice, though he acknowledged it could prove difficult because some federal courts have ruled using paid circulators to gather signatures is a constitutionally protected form of political free speech.

"This is not a free market enterprise where people are going to profit off of our constitution," Horn said.

There were reports this year of one petition circulator in downtown Lansing offering voters a few dollars to sign their name to a petition, GOP political consultant John Truscott said.

"That's not illegal," said Truscott, whose firm worked on campaigns against the casino issue and the renewable energy initiative. "That's the sort of thing you need to look at (banning) immediately."

Former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, a Republican, has suggested making the petition-signing process completely digital, in which registered voters sign petitions online using their driver's license or state-issued identification card numbers.

"The technology is there to do this," she said.

Mark Fisk, a Democratic political consultant who worked on the Proposal 3 campaign, said any effort to restrict the initiative petition process would amount to a power grab by "groups who like the status quo" in Lansing.

"Folks should be very wary of any so-called 'reform' efforts that would constrain the ability of any group to go to the ballot," he said.

Another trend in financing of ballot proposal campaigns exposed this year was groups relying on political action committees and nonprofit corporations to conceal the identity of donors.

The backers of Proposal 4, an initiative that sought to give home health care workers limited collective bargaining rights, got all $9.3 million of their funding from an entity called Home Care First Inc. in East Lansing, which one organizer acknowledged was a shell company into which anonymous supporters could pool their money.

Separately, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and Michigan Alliance for Business Growth bundled a combined $12.75 million in donations from anonymous donors for two ballot committees that sought the defeat of Proposals 2, 3 and 4.

State Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, said the Legislature should pass a law that money sources be disclosed. "People should have a right to know who is paying for the messaging that they're getting," she said.

Court involvement

With the deadline to submit signatures in early July, legal challenges arose in late August that required emergency actions from Michigan's top courts.

The Michigan Supreme Court ordered the emergency manager referendum and three amendments (Proposals 2, 5 and 6) on the ballot after the Board of State Canvassers — a panel of two Democrats and two Republicans — failed to reach a required bipartisan consensus. The four members disagreed over the board's authority to rule on petition typography and the legal implications of constitutional amendments.

Julie Matuzak, chairwoman of the canvassers board, said there needs to be more time between the signature submission deadline and the mid-September deadline to print the ballot for election officials and the courts to juggle legal challenges.

The courts sent signals to the Legislature that the canvassers board's authority needs to be clarified.

Matuzak, a Democrat, cautions against giving the board more than ministerial powers to decide whether a petition's format meets legal guidelines.

"I would hate to see the board become basically a political operation interpreting what a constitutional amendment or referendum would or would not do," she said.

Republican political consultant Jeff Timmer is a former canvasser who was spat upon by a protester after voting to block the emergency manager law from going on the ballot. He said the Secretary of State's Office needs to play a more active role in analyzing proposed constitutional amendments.

"The Bureau of Elections is a paper pusher," Timmer said. "Everybody's campaign plan shouldn't include the Supreme Court as a step along the way. And it's become that."

(517) 371-3660

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