Michigan Officials Accused of Blocking Voting Measure

(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

DETROIT (CN) – A group advocating for same-day voter registration and no-reason absentee voting in Michigan filed a federal lawsuit claiming state election officials are obstructing efforts to allow voters to weigh in on a proposed ballot measure in November’s election.

Promote the Vote joined three supporters of the ballot initiative in suing Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, a Republican, and other Michigan officials in Detroit federal court on Tuesday, alleging they arbitrarily invalidated 24 petition signatures among a sample of 500 names to delay a vote on a conditional amendment that would make it easier for Michiganders to cast their ballot.

Among other things, the group wants new rules that will allow residents to register to vote anytime if they prove their residency, give registered voters absentee ballots for any reason, and allow auditing of election results.  

If a sample of petition signatures results in a “close call,” the state then examines names from a 3,000 to 4,000-signature sample. After Promote the Vote filed the signatures on July 9, the Michigan Bureau of Elections ruled that there were not enough genuine signatures and ordered a review of 3,300 signatures. The agency expects to complete that review by Friday.

Because the group suspects that state officials will continue to reject genuine signatures in the larger sample, it says that it will not have enough time to “investigate, respond to, and provide corrections” ahead of a Sept. 7 deadline to certify ballot measures.

The American Civil Liberties Union Fund of Michigan and Andrew Nickelhoff of Detroit law firm Sachs Waldman represent the plaintiffs. They say that officials have violated their equal protection and due process rights and the constitutional right to vote, and want the state to certify the measure for the November ballot.

Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, said Wednesday that the case had come “down to the wire” and it was unfair that the group was not being given more time to respond to the results of the second sample.

“Citizens’ right to petition the government is a basic constitutional right and over 430,000 want a chance to vote on this initiative,” Moss said in a phone interview. “And we submitted over 115,000 signatures more than is required and we did it within all the required timelines.”

Promote the Vote claims state officials are purposely delaying the group’s efforts to put the proposal before voters in the fall. It notes that petitioners need 315,654 signatures for a measure to be placed on the ballot, and says it secured more than 432,000 voter signatures.

“As state law deadlines quickly near, and with election campaigning already in full swing, without this court’s intervention, plaintiffs will suffer irreparable deprivation of their constitutional rights and injury to their collective cause of making the vote more secure and accessible in Michigan,” the 23-page complaint states.

Michigan Department of State spokesman Fred Woodhams said his agency had not been served and could not comment on the specifics of the lawsuit. He noted that election officials had also taken a larger sample for a petition from Protecting Michigan Taxpayers seeking to repeal the state’s prevailing wage law for public construction projects.

“We are surprised that this lawsuit was filed given how the Bureau of Elections has used the same process for reviewing petition signatures for decades. The lawsuit will only delay work completing the larger sample and issuing a staff report, which is expected Friday,” Woodhams wrote in an email.

Promote the Vote says that of the 24 signatures officials rejected from the 500-vote sample, it has affidavits from 13 petition signers saying their names are genuine.

The group claims state officials are not qualified to compare signatures and determine which ones are genuine, and that research shows signature comparisons by untrained people result in a “higher probability that the examiner will find that signatures do not match when in fact they are written by the same person.”

Election officials have not applied the same level scrutiny to other groups petitioning for ballot proposals, according to Promote the Vote.

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