Michigan judge strikes down state’s ballot drive law

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — A Michigan judge on Friday struck down a new requirement that makes it harder to initiate ballot drives by limiting how many voter signatures can be counted from a single congressional district.

Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Stephens said the state constitution does not allow the geographic limit that was approved by the Republican-led Legislature and then-Gov. Rick Snyder in last year’s lame-duck session.

The law says no more than 15% of petition signatures can be used from any one of the state’s 14 congressional districts — a restriction that prevents ballot committees from solely targeting the most heavily populated, more Democratic urban areas.

“The effect of the 15% geographic limitation would undoubtedly drive petition circulators from the state’s population hubs and would impede circulators’ abilities to satisfy the Constitution’s signature requirements,” Stephens wrote in her opinion .

She also nullified a new requirement that each petition indicate whether a circulator is paid or a volunteer. She let other portions of the law stand, including a requirement that paid gatherers file an affidavit with the secretary of state and the invalidation of signatures that do not meet technical requirements.

A lawsuit was filed in May by the League of Women Voters of Michigan, a ballot committee and who said lawmakers could not amend the constitution with legislation and contended the 15% requirement would dramatically increase the cost and difficulty of mounting successful citizen petition campaigns.

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

Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel previously said the 15% limit and other portions of the law are unconstitutional. State election officials will comply with her opinion unless an appellate court issues orders otherwise.

Republicans, who still control the Legislature while Democrat Gretchen Whitmer is governor, approved the law in December — a month after voters passed three Democratic-backed proposals to legalize marijuana for recreational use, curtail the gerrymandering of congressional and legislative districts, and expand voting options.

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.

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