Pubdate: Fri, 17 Jun 2016
Source: Detroit News (MI)
Copyright: 2016 The Detroit News
Author: Jonathan Oosting


MI Legalize's Lawsuit Challenges Law, Policy That Nulls Signatures

Lansing - A Michigan group seeking to put a marijuana legalization 
question on the November ballot is taking its fight to court.

MI Legalize on Thursday filed a lawsuit against the state in the 
Michigan Court of Claims, challenging a law and policy that 
effectively invalidated its petition signatures collected outside of 
a customary 180-day window.

Attorneys Jeff Hank, Thomas Lavigne and Matthew Abel, members of the 
MI Legalize board, argue the law and policy are inconsistent with the 
Michigan Constitution, which allows for initiated petitions but does 
not specify a time limit for signature collection.

The six-count complaint also contends rejecting older signatures 
denies voters their free speech and political expression rights under 
the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

"We're just asking for our petitions to be treated like all the 
others so that anyone who signed as a registered voter has their 
voice heard," Hank told The Detroit News. "The state doesn't really 
have an argument for why they wouldn't count someone's signature if 
it's legitimate."

The suit has broad implications for MI Legalize and other ballot 
proposal committees in Michigan, where successful "citizen-initiated" 
petition drives typically rely on the financial and organizational 
backing of interest groups.

"It's going to be a historic Michigan elections law case that effects 
not just us but everybody else," Hank said. "If we're successful in 
this, other campaigns will have a longer time to petition. This isn't 
just a marijuana issue anymore, it's a voting rights and ballot access issue."

MI Legalize, an activist-led group that used a combination of 
volunteer and paid petition circulators, submitted an estimated 
354,000 signatures to the state on June 1, topping the 252,523 needed 
to qualify for the ballot.

But 146,413 of the signatures were collected within 180 days of the 
filing, according to an initial Bureau of Elections staff review, 
prompting the Board of State Canvassers to vote against certifying 
the proposal for the November ballot.

MI Legalize is asking for expedited review by the Court of Claims, 
including a restraining order against the 180-day collection law and 
an order for the Bureau of Elections to move forward with a full 
canvass of the group's submitted petitions.

The suit names Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, Bureau of 
Elections Director Chris Thomas and the Board of State Canvassers. 
Secretary of State spokesman Fred Woodhams said the department had 
not yet reviewed the lawsuit and therefore did not have any comment.

Thomas said last week the Elections Bureau expedited its initial 
review of the MI Legalize petitions in anticipation of litigation.

"If people are going to go off to court, we'd like them to do so as 
quickly as possible and get a resolution as quickly as possible," 
Thomas told The News.

If a judge ruled in favor of MI Legalize, Thomas said the bureau 
would need time to conduct a full canvass of the petitions, likely by 
the end of July. If certified, legislators would then have 40 days to 
consider the proposal or let it go to the ballot.

"If it were to happen and it came back to us, we want as much time to 
do what has to be done," Thomas said.

Gov. Rick Snyder last week signed a new law strengthening the 180-day 
window requirement for petition drives to initiate legislation or 
amend the state constitution.

The law had allowed petitioners to "rebut" the presumption that older 
signatures were "stale and void," but the process for proving their 
validity was laborious and had never been successfully completed.

The 1986 Board of State Canvassers policy required petitioners to 
secure affidavits from local elections clerks across the state 
confirming that signers were still registered to vote in their 
respective counties.

MI Legalize had asked the state to update by the policy by allowing 
registration verification through the Qualified Voter File database, 
but the Board of State Canvassers did not approve a Bureau of 
Elections recommendation.

The Michigan Supreme Court in 1986 upheld the 180-day signature 
window for petitions to amend the state constitution, but the MI 
Legalize complaint focuses on petition drives for initiated legislation.

The lawsuit filed Thursday challenges the old law as well as the new 
version signed this month by Snyder that eliminated the signature 
rehabilitation option, requesting a declaration that both are unconstitutional.

MI Legalize is also seeking monetary damages of up to $1.1 million 
plus other costs and punitive relief if its signatures are not fully 
canvassed. The group had reported raising $849,000 through April 20.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom