EDITORIAL: New Michigan petition law violates the First Amendment


The First Amendment is the framework for American liberty.

It details five inalienable rights: freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, the right to assemble peacefully, freedom of the press and to petition the government. 

This last part allows us to air our grievances in a non-violent way, arguably the most important aspect of the First Amendment. It allows us to demand change from those in power.

Petitioning, in this manner, creates new ballot proposals that become law if our citizens approve them – proposals like the MI Legalize pot initiative, and a new statewide comprehensive fracking ban.

Both of these proposals were slated to appear on the Nov. 8 ballot. Both were disqualified by a technicality – one we believe violates the First Amendment. 

Earlier this year, the state legislature approved an amendment to the state's election laws, changing the scope of the “180-day Rule.” Essentially, the amendment tweaked an existing law that stated any signature collected more than 180 days before filing a petition is invalid. Our legislature calls these 180-day-old signatures “stale and void.”

Almost all aspects of that law remain unchanged, including the 180-day Rule. Petitioners must still gather a specific number of signatures from registered voters before the state approves a proposal be added to the state-wide ballot. Once filed, the State Board of Canvassers checks to see if all of the signatures are from valid registered voters.

What’s different is the change in process. There once was a way to refute the 180-day Rule. If a voter was registered at the time of signing, their signature was considered valid if it was collected outside of 180 days. 

These voters were then given an affidavit from the county clerk, validating the signature in the process.

The amendment passed in May eliminates that process.

A request sent to the canvassing board to update and clarify the existing policy set the change in motion. The requestor, attorney Jeffrey A. Hank, stated the signature verification process is simpler now with computers.

His second complaint was more philosophical. Thomas argued that clerks might deny affidavits to people trying to prove registration, or worse yet, deny them because clerks disagree with the measure.

Hank's intent was virtuous. The law that passed has yet to fulfill his goal. 

Almost all Republicans in the State House of Representatives voted in favor of the measure. House Democrats did not. In turn, many liberal watch groups claimed it was meant to stop liberal ballot measures, such as pot and fracking referenda.

In the case of MI Legalize, the group followed the rules, presented the state with almost double the required signatures. More than half of the signatures were considered invalid, stale and void without the safety net of a rebuttal process.

We believe this rule and its limitations are wrong. By making the petition process more difficult, the legislature erodes the First Amendment and its associated rights.

This isn’t about pot for us. Or fracking. It isn’t about Gov. Rick Snyder, his cabinet or his allies in Lansing.

It’s about upholding our American values. The Founding Fathers adopted the right to petition from the English Declaration of Rights to ensure we had a voice. It legitimizes the phrase “power to the people” against a seemingly oppressive government. It gives us a constitutionally protected, non-violent mechanism to oppose poorly-made laws.

One could reasonably argue that our right to petition is why our representative democracy still works. As student media, we have an obligation to protect the First Amendment rights of our students. That includes the free exercise of speech, religion, and the right to petition on-campus. 

Any unreasonable limitation on this vital process degrades the legitimacy of our democracy. It places unnecessary roadblocks on a freedom we inherently possess. 

We believe overturning these limitations is imperative. We support any group taking legal action against the state in regards to this 180-day Rule. 

In turn, we call on the legislature to rewrite passages related to collection period, extending it to 250 days instead of 180.

Canvassing is hard work. It requires a massive petition team, people who may have scant experience in persuading people to vote a certain way. Making that processes easier is in keeping with the spirit of the First Amendment. 

We hope the Michigan Supreme Court rules that such a limitation does not uphold the spirit of the First Amendment.


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