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Signature, petition review legislation could be on horizon


The Michigan Board of State Canvassers is considering asking lawmakers for legislation to clarify the board's powers.

The board handles a range of election-related tasks, like certifying results, conducting recounts, and giving final approval as to whether petitions meet requirements.

At an October 20 meeting, the board approved a new random sampling procedure for reviewing candidate petition signatures. Previously, the Bureau of Elections used a two-step process that involved a “face review” of every petition sheet for compliance and later reviewing challenges to any remaining signatures.

Now the canvassing board is discussing potential legislation to codify that new practice.

Board chair Mary Ellen Gurewitz said the random sampling method would be more effective than the face review strategy.

“There’s a limited ability on the part of the Bureau to look in detail at signatures and to compare them to the qualified voter file, and the face review simply doesn’t do that,” Gurewitz said.

The issue arose last year when then-Republican gubernatorial candidate Perry Johnson was disqualified for having too many fake signatures on his nominating petitions. He sued to have each signature reviewed individually.

The Board of State Canvassers won that case.

Gurewitz said she hopes to have a proposal introduced in the state Legislature by this upcoming spring.

Reducing confusion at the state canvassers level is something Senate Elections Committee Chair Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) said he’s open to.

He noted the board, which holds a relatively mundane charge, has increasingly seen meticulously crafted fights over what could be considered minutia at its meetings.

“Every time somebody has a good idea in Michigan and wants to put it on the ballot or bring it before the Legislature, you need two things,” Moss said. “You need a stack of petitions that are signed and you need a bunch of lawyers. Because everything is going to be picked apart. That’s kind of the mode now. To bring things to the ballot or to take things off the ballot rather than actually going to the people and getting their signature.”

Aside from last year’s widespread signature fraud scandal, some of the most detail-oriented fights at the state canvassers meetings have been over whether petition forms properly complied with the law.

Gurewitz said that comes down to a matter of appearance.

“Does it have all of the right words and all of the right typeface. Is anything missing that should be there?” Gurewitz said.

The past election cycle saw challenges to petitions over details like spacing between words and font size in a union logo that appeared in the bottom corner of some forms.

Both issues ultimately ended up in court. The affected campaigns prevailed.

During a November 27 meeting, board members discussed the possibility of moving away from a policy of "strict compliance" to one of "substantial compliance.” That would ease the standard for determining whether a petition campaign meets the board's requirements.

“I know there was general agreement among the practitioners that that would be an improvement. That we wouldn’t have the kind of ‘gotcha’ examination of petitions but really look at them for substantive compliance,” Gurewitz said.

At the meeting, not all board members seemed on board with changing the compliance standard, however.

Board member Tony Daunt said changing the standard could create more confusion. He referenced a case from the previous election cycle where a candidate was disqualified due to what he saw as a relatively minor error.

“It sucked to have to do that to him, but at least the law was clear,” Daunt said.

Ultimately, the board agreed to take more time to discuss the topic and come back to it at a later meeting.

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Colin Jackson is the Capitol reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network.
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