Michigan civil rights campaign plans high-stakes fight for petitions

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Lansing – The campaign to expand Michigan’s civil rights law to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation will challenge state officials’ conclusion that it failed to collect enough petition signatures, putting up a potentially significant legal battle.

The fight could determine whether voters have an opportunity to approve the long-debated protections against prejudice in 2022 and could offer judges the opportunity to resolve disputes over the process of collecting petitions, including whether electronic signatures should be allowed.

“We are obviously ready to argue. The position will depend on what the board does or does not do,” said Steve Liedel, senior legal counsel for the Fair and Equal Michigan campaign, of the Board of State Canvassers. “We are confident in our legal position.”

The State Solicitors Council may make a decision next week on whether its members believe Fair and Equal Michigan has reached the threshold of 340,047 signatures. A coalition of business leaders, political activists and leaders of nonprofit organizations launched the initiative in January 2020. The idea was to present a proposal to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the GOP-controlled legislature.

Lawmakers have long debated Michigan reform with Republicans previously calling for the protection of religious beliefs to be included in such a measure. If the legislature refused to approve the Fair and Equal Michigan initiative, it would be presented to voters in 2022.

The campaign brought in around $ 3.8 million in contributions and net support from some of Michigan’s biggest companies, including Dow Chemical, Rock Holdings and TCF Bank.

But after the group turned in 468,000 petition signatures, the Michigan Bureau of Elections, which is part of the office of Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, found it. run out of valid signatures July 8 – a move that would derail the campaign.

Examining a sample of 502 signatures, staff determined that only 337 were valid, leaving Fair and Equal Michigan 61 below the threshold required to be certified by the Board of State Canvassers and 33 below the benchmark for a second sample at take.

Meanwhile, opponents have claimed that at least 39 additional signatures deemed “valid” have been duplicated elsewhere in the file. And at a meeting of canvassers on July 13, Jonathan Brater, Michigan’s chief electoral officer, described Fair and Equal Michigan as “well below” the required signatures.

“The staff are confident that their recommendation will ultimately be the result,” Brater told the board.

Organizers at Fair and Equal Michigan initially focused on requesting a second sample review, but now they argue the campaign has met the threshold to be certified – in direct contradiction to Bureau of Elections analysis .

In a letter sent to the Council of State Solicitors on Friday, Liedel said 97 of the 165 signatures rejected in the sample should be rehabilitated and counted as valid, bringing the campaign to 434 valid signatures, well above the threshold of 398.

Chris Thomas, Michigan’s longtime former chief electoral officer, said it was not uncommon for campaigns to be able to rehabilitate signatures deemed invalid. But the large number of signings Fair and Equal Michigan has to justify would be unusual. Thomas said he would be surprised if the campaign was successful.

Fair and Equal Michigan’s argument relies on signatures that state officials have deemed invalid due to the signer’s registration status. There were 97 in the sample of 502. Fair and Equal estimates that at least 53 of them were correctly registered and should have been taken into account.

The campaign also sent the state a report from an Arizona-based company, Signafide, which found that 80 of 97 were “potentially rehabilitated” based on analysis of information on petition sheets and files. of Michigan registered voters. Without standardized practices, it’s hard to say how officials at State and Fair and Equal Michigan came to such different conclusions, said Trevor Thomas, who serves on the board of directors of Fair and Equal Michigan.

“We assume the best of intentions,” Thomas said, citing the potential pressure from the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 election.

In one example, Fair and Equal says that a University of Michigan student signed the petition, indicating an address in Ann Arbor, where the university is located. The student is registered to vote in Canton Canton and the signature was deemed invalid when it should have been accepted, Liedel said.

The campaign estimates that another 44 signatures in the sample should be considered valid based on the list of appropriate jurisdictions and the inclusion of the appropriate signatures on petitions when the Elections Office decides otherwise.

In another case, personnel officials declared a signature invalid because it did not have an appropriate date, according to Fair and Equal Michigan. However, there appears to be a date with the signature, although it is difficult to read, and the date appears to match the date given by others who signed the same petition sheet: September 19, 2020.

Fair and Equal Michigan claims that this date was wrongly viewed as invalid by staff at the Bureau of Elections.

In addition to these questions,Michigan fair and equal submitted over 18,000 electronic signatures which she believes should be factored into the overall tally. This issue could be resolved in court.

“We expect the courts of appeal to take an interest in this,” Liedel said. “Because there are new questions of law. “

The State Solicitors Council met on July 13, when members delayed a final decision on Fair and Equal Michigan’s petitions. The board is due to meet next Monday. Last week, Tony Daunt, a Republican board member, said he didn’t expect the determination of Fair and Equal Michigan running out of signatures to change.

cmauger@detroitnews.com


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