Michigan civil rights marketing campaign plans high-stakes battle over petitions

Lansing – The campaign to expand Michigan Civil Rights Act to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation will challenge state officials’ findings that it has not collected enough signatures for petitions, sparking a potentially high-risk legal battle.

The battle could determine whether voters have the option to approve the long-debated bias protection in 2022 and could give judges a chance to resolve disputes over the petitions process, including whether or not electronic signatures are allowed.

“We’re ready to litigate, of course. The stance will depend on what the board does or doesn’t do,” said Steve Liedel, senior legal advisor for the Board of State Canvassers’ Fair and Equal Michigan campaign. “We are convinced of our legal position.”

The Board of State Canvassers could make a decision next week on whether its members believe Fair and Equal Michigan has reached the 340,047 mark. The initiative was launched in January 2020 by a coalition of corporate executives, political activists and nonprofit executives. The idea was to submit a proposal to the GOP-controlled legislature to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Michigan lawmakers have long debated reform, with Republicans previously calling for protection of religious beliefs to be included in such measures. If lawmakers refused to sign the Fair and Equal Michigan initiative, it would go before voters in 2022.

The campaign reported $ 3.8 million in donations and net support from some of Michigan’s largest corporations, including Dow Chemical, Rock Holdings, and TCF Bank.

But after the group filed 468,000 petition signatures, the Michigan Bureau of Elections, part of the office of Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, found on July 8 a lack of valid signatures – a decision that would ruin the campaign .

Upon examining a sample of 502 signatures, staff found that only 337 were valid, leaving Fair and Equal Michigan 61 below the threshold required to be certified by the Board of State Canvassers and 33 below the benchmark for drawing a second Sample.

Meanwhile, opponents have claimed that at least 39 additional “valid” signatures were duplicated elsewhere in the filing. And during a July 13 campaigner meeting, Jonathan Brater, Michigan’s electoral director, described Fair and Equal Michigan as “way too short” of the required signatures.

“The employees are confident that their recommendation will ultimately be the result,” Brater told the board of directors.

Fair and Equal Michigan organizers initially focused on calling for a second sample to be examined, but now argue that the campaign has reached certification – in direct contradiction to the Bureau of Elections’ analysis.

In a letter sent to the Board of State Canvassers Friday, Liedel said 97 signatures of the 165 signatures rejected in the sample should be rehabilitated and counted as valid, which puts the campaign at 434 valid signatures, well over the threshold of 398

Chris Thomas, Michigan’s longtime former election director, said it was not uncommon for campaigns deemed invalid to have the ability to rehabilitate signatures. But the large number of signatures that Fair and Equal Michigan must justify would be unusual. Thomas said he would be surprised if the campaign is successful.

Fair and Equal Michigan’s argument rests on signatures that state officials deemed invalid based on the signer’s registration status. Of these, 97 were in the 502 sample. Fair and Equal believes that at least 53 of them were properly registered and should be counted.

The campaign also sent the state a report from Arizona-based Signafide firm that found 80 of the 97 “potentially rehabilitated” based on analysis of the information on the petition sheets and Michigan registered voter files. Without standardized practices, it’s hard to tell how state officials and Fair and Equal Michigan reached such different conclusions, said Trevor Thomas, who sits on the board of directors of Fair and Equal Michigan.

“We assume the best of intentions,” said Thomas, referring to the possible pressure from the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 elections.

In one example, Fair and Equal says a University of Michigan student signed the petition and provided an address in Ann Arbor where the university is located. The student is registered in Canton Township and the signature has been invalidated when it should have been accepted, Liedel said.

The campaign believes that 44 more signatures in the sample should be considered valid based on listing the correct jurisdictions and including proper signatures on the petitions, if the electoral office has determined otherwise.

In another case, officials ruled a signature invalid because it did not have a correct date, according to Fair and Equal Michigan. However, there appears to be a date to be signed, although difficult to read, and the date seems to coincide with the date listed by others who have signed the same petition sheet: September 19, 2020.

Fair and Equal Michigan says this date was incorrectly deemed invalid by the Bureau of Elections staff.

Additionally, Fair and Equal Michigan submitted more than 18,000 electronic signatures which they believed should make up the total. This matter could be resolved in court.

“We expect the appeals courts to show interest,” said Liedel. “Because there are some new legal issues.”

The Board of State Canvassers met on July 13 when members delayed a final decision on Fair and Equal Michigan petitions. The next meeting of the board is planned for Monday. Last week Tony Daunt, a Republican board member, said he didn’t expect the Fair and Equal Michigan decision to change in the absence of signatures.

cmauger@detroitnews.com

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