Attorney General: Parts of election law passed during lame duck session unconsitutional

Michigan's Attorney General has issued an opinion stating an election law passed in 2018 is unconstitutional.

The opinion was written in response to a request by Michigan's Secretary of State to review a bill that was passed ruing the lame duck session in 2018, when the Republican controlled legislature passed Public Act 608. The act made it easier to reject ballot initiatives.

"Based on our review, this new law clearly violates the Constitution on several - but not all - fronts," wrote Dana Nessel.

The law imposes a geographic requirement on groups trying to gather hundreds of thousands of voter signatures to qualify for the ballot. No more than 15 percent of signatures can come from any one of Michigan's 14 congressional districts, a restriction that could prevent ballot committees from solely targeting the most heavily populated, more Democratic urban areas.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Jim Lower said the law was designed give voters more input on ballot measures because many proposals are funded by out-of-state interests. The bill was approved after several ballot measures were approved by Michigan voters that legalized marijuana and worked to curtail gerrymandering.

In January, Michigan's Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said she was bothered by the legislation when it passed.

"I am proud that, for more than a century, Michiganders have exercised core constitutional rights in the circulation of initiative, referendum and constitutional amendment petitions," Benson said in January. "I am deeply concerned that the new restrictions enacted late last year in Public Act 608 of 2018 may potentially violate those constitutional rights by adding new burdens and restrictions on the process."

Specific parts of the bill that Nessel disagrees and why are listed below:

  • Fifteen percent of signatures per congressional district. This new requirement is unconstitutional because it creates an obstacle for voters without any support in the Constitution itself. 
  • Paid signature gatherers must indicate as such before circulating any petition sheets. The opinion concludes that focusing on petition circulators rather than proponents of the petition, singling out paid circulators with a separate procedural hurdle, and requiring “check boxes’ that could lead to circulator harassment

Nessel found no problem with several other provisions of the bill however. They include the invalidation of a petition if the circulator provides false information, establishing a mechanism to set and approve the purpose of a petition and any challenge to a Board of State Canvassers' decision be filed with the Michigan Supreme Court instead of the Court of Appeals.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.