By David Eggert
LANSING (AP) - A judge struck down changes to Michigan's ballot drive law last Friday, ruling that a geographic limit on petition gathering unconstitutionally makes it harder to qualify proposals for a public vote.
Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Stephens said the state constitution does not allow the threshold that was approved by the Republican-led Legislature and then-Gov. Rick Snyder in last year's lame-duck session.
The law says no more than 15% of petition signatures can be used from any one of the state's 14 congressional districts - a restriction that prevents ballot committees from solely targeting the most heavily populated, more Democratic urban areas.
"The effect of the 15% geographic limitation would undoubtedly drive petition circulators from the state's population hubs and would impede circulators' abilities to satisfy the Constitution's signature requirements," Stephens wrote in her opinion.
She also nullified a new requirement that each petition indicate whether a circulator is paid or a volunteer. She let other portions of the law stand, including a requirement that paid gatherers file an affidavit with the secretary of state and the invalidation of signatures that do not meet technical requirements.
Stephens was initially appointed to the bench by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat.
The Senate will likely appeal, said a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey. A spokesman for House Speaker Lee Chatfield said he had not yet reviewed the decision.
A lawsuit was filed in May by the League of Women Voters of Michigan, a ballot committee and voters who said lawmakers could not amend the constitution with legislation and contended the 15% requirement would dramatically increase the cost and difficulty of mounting successful citizen petition campaigns.
The law is backed by business groups and GOP legislators who have said it adds transparency and accountability to the petition-gathering process and ensures statewide input earlier on ballot drives funded by out-of-state interests.
Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel previously said the 15% limit and other portions of the law are unconstitutional. State election officials will comply with her opinion, which is not binding on courts, unless an appellate court issues orders otherwise.
Republicans, who still control the Legislature while Democrat Gretchen Whitmer is governor, approved the law in December - a month after voters passed three Democratic-backed proposals to legalize marijuana for recreational use, curtail the gerrymandering of congressional and legislative districts, and expand voting options.
To make the ballot in 2020 or 2022, groups proposing a constitutional amendment must submit 425,000 signatures. The threshold is 340,000 for an initiative and 212,000 for a referendum.
The defendant in the case is Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who is named in her official capacity as the state's top election official. Benson, who has criticized the changes to the initiative process, welcomed last Friday's ruling.
"As we've said previously, both the Michigan Constitution and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protect Michigan citizens' right to amend our laws or state constitution through direct citizen petitions," spokesman Shawn Sharkey said in a written statement.
Nessel's spokeswoman said she was "very pleased" with the decision.
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