By: Simon Zagata

What do milk, eggs, yogurt, chicken and your signature on a petition have in common? As of June 6, 2016, they all have expiration dates; at least in Michigan.

In the U.S., 24 states and the District of Columbia allow citizens to introduce new laws through petitions. In Michigan, citizens can propose new state laws or constitutional amendments through petitions, if they get enough signatures. Once the petition has enough signatures, the proposed ballot measure goes to the legislature. If the legislature does not pass the proposed law within 40 days, the statute goes on the ballot, and voters get to decide its fate. If the ballot measure receives a majority of “yes” votes, it becomes law.

Getting a proposed law on the ballot is not easy, however. How activist groups collect signatures for Michigan ballot initiatives is subject to restriction. For example, only registered voters may collect signatures on a petition. Michigan law mandates that circulators collect signatures in person; citizens cannot sign petitions electronically. As of June 6, 2016, signatures also have an expiration date: signatures collected more than 180 days before the petition is filed are invalid.

Some members of congress who supported the expiration of petition signatures argued that the change simply provided bright-line guidance to those hoping to get new laws on the ballot. Under old laws, petitioners could “refresh” expired signatures, but they had to get the signer themselves or local clerks to testify that the signer was registered to vote at the time of signing. This process was tedious, took a lot of paperwork and petitioners hardly used it. Congressman argue that the new law, which eliminates that process, simply sets the signature expiration date in stone.

Even though the new law does not change much because the old process to refresh signatures was so onerous, it is a big change from what petitioners wanted. Advocates for recreational marijuana use and a group that wanted to ban fracking argued that they should be allowed to use the Qualified Voter File (QVF) to refresh signatures older than 180 days. The QVF, implemented in 1998, tracks voter registration online. Using the QVF would shorten the process to refresh expired signatures, and make it much easier to get proposed statutes on the ballot.

Instead, Michigan went the other way; instead of allowing groups to use the QVF to refresh signatures, the legislature eliminated any procedure to refresh signatures older than 180 days. Now, any signature collected more than 180 days before filing is invalid. If the petitioners want older signatures to count, or if that citizen wants to support the proposed legislation, they must sign the petition again, within the 180-day window. This can be a big hindrance to getting new legislation in front of voters, because proposed statutes need 252,523 signatures to get on the ballot, and every signature must be done in-person, pen to paper.

Petitioning organizations in Michigan, like those hoping to legalize recreational marijuana use or increase paid sick time, fell short of the required number of signatures in recent years. It is worth asking if the new, firm expiration date had anything to do with those shortfalls. After all, Michigan voters are traditionally very good at getting legislation changed through the ballot. There have been thirteen proposed laws on the ballot since 1963, seven of which became law. The legislature approved five other ballot proposals before they made it to public vote. It is not as if these laws made small changes, either; laws that allow casinos in Michigan and prohibit nonreturnable beverage containers started as ballot initiatives. Does the 180-day expiration date doom ballot initiatives in Michigan?

The answer is probably no. Previous successful ballot initiatives in Michigan did not have the advantage of rebutting expired signatures with the QVF, but circulators gathered the requisite signatures nonetheless. Supportive legislators see the strict 180-day deadline as consistent with prior precedent; it does not give groups the advantage of the QVF that other groups never had.  Petitioner groups see the change as a way to quiet voters who are eager for legislative change, by invalidating signatures that were valid, but simply older. Either way, one thing is clear: like their milk, petitioners need to check the dates on their signatures.


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