Metro Weekly

LGBTQ rights campaign challenging Michigan’s signature requirements for ballot initiative

Supporters of LGBTQ rights claim their efforts to collect signatures were hampered by COVID-19 pandemic

michigan, lgbtq, ballot initiative, signatures
Pride flag – Photo: Sharon McCutcheon, via Unsplash.

Organizers behind a proposed initiative to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Michigan have sued the state over requirements that require them to collect in-person petition signatures to appear on the November ballot.

Fair and Equal Michigan has sued the Michigan Board of Canvassers, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, and Elections Director Jonathan Brater, arguing that the state’s response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — notably Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order and protocols calling for people to socially distance to avoid spreading the virus — has made it all but impossible to collect the requisite number of signatures for a ballot initiative.

Under Michigan law, Fair and Equal Michigan would have had to turn in 340,047 valid signatures by Wednesday in order to have its proposal, which would add LGBTQ protections for employment, housing, and public accommodations into Michigan’s existing civil rights law — considered by the Michigan Legislature.

If the Legislature refused to approve the measure, the policy would then have appeared on the ballot, reports the Detroit News.

The campaign managed to collect 134,000 petition signatures prior to the pandemic, but only managed to collect an additional 43,000 signatures as of last Sunday.

That’s before any signatures are challenged by opponents seeking to delay an up-or-down citizen vote on LGBTQ rights.

Related: “Big Three” automakers back campaign to add LGBTQ protections to Michigan’s civil rights law

Fair and Equal Michigan says that enforcing the law amid a pandemic prevents supporters of the proposed initiative from exercising their constitutional rights.

They have been joined by two state lawmakers, Sen. Adam Hollier (D-Detroit) and Rep. Mari Manoogian (D-Birmingham) in their lawsuit.

“Under normal times, this requirement is difficult to meet,” the lawsuit reads. “But the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with restrictions imposed by federal, state and local authorities on large gatherings and in-person contact, have made this signature requirement impossible to satisfy, effectively barring the right to initiate legislation.”

Specifically, the plaintiffs have asked the court to declare that enforcing the current signature requirements amid the pandemic is unconstitutional.

The lawsuit also asks for the number of signatures to be reduced to 127,518 — based on the percentage of days the campaign was able to collect signatures under pre-COVID conditions — and for the deadline to be extended to July 13.

Supporters note that a similar lawsuit to ease signature requirements for candidates hoping to qualify for the primary ballot due to the COVID-related restrictions was successful, and that the same courtesy should be extended to those working on issue-based campaigns.

“We will pursue our case to Michigan’s highest court to protect our progress, honor our financial support and ensure our volunteer energy proceeds unabated,” Trevor Thomas, Fair and Equal Michigan’s co-chair and president. “Even, and especially, at time of great difficulty, such as our current public health crisis, our precious constitutional rights must be upheld.”

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